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In Memoriam: Biological Sciences Trailblazer Eloise E. Clark

Eloise Clark, who has been described as a “biologist’s biologist” dedicated her career to the biological sciences as a professor, National Science Foundation assistant director and provost at Bowling Green State University. | Jim Gordon/BGSURA

Eloise E. Clark, an advocate for federal support of biological sciences, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and former assistant director of the National Science Foundation, died on May 10 in her adopted hometown of Asheville, N.C. after a brief illness.

Clark’s distinguished career saw her play leading roles in academia, national science policy and academic leadership.

She was Columbia University’s first female professor among biology faculty in 1960 and remained at the university until 1969. She then delved into national science policy at the National Science Foundation where she held successive positions of growing responsibility.

She was the assistant director for biological, behavioral and social sciences at the National Science Foundation when she retired from the government position in 1982. From there, Clark went on to Bowling Green State University as provost, vice president for academic affairs and biology professor until 1996. She served as president of AAAS in 1994.  

“Though word of her death came very recently to many of us, we need to recognize and honor the work she did at AAAS as well as during her time at NSF,” said Shirley Malcom, director of AAAS’ education and human resources program.

Malcolm said during Clark’s tenure at NSF, the biological sciences division Clark ran included the social, behavioral and economic sciences. “She was a strong advocate for the biological sciences, but not at the expense of everything else,” said Malcom, who worked with Clark at NSF and was her colleagues again the year Clark served as AAAS president.

“Though not her disciplinary areas, she fiercely defended social, behavioral and economic sciences from the attacks which seem regularly to pop up,” said Malcom. “We welcomed her strong support for women in science, both at NSF and during her presidency of AAAS. We will miss her voice and advocacy for women’s leadership in science.”

Clark was born in the small southwestern Virginia town of Grundy in the Appalachian Mountains, where her interest in science blossomed. She was the daughter of Frank and Ava Clark of Abingdon, and the youngest of seven children, according to an obituary. Her father founded a Presbyterian mission school in Grundy and made education a top pursuit.  

She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in biology from Mary Washington College, then the University of Virginia’s women’s college, and received her doctorate in developmental biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She conducted postdoctoral work at the Department of Microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis and in the Biochemistry and Virus Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley.

Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association and a former colleague of Clark’s, said just after arriving at NSF, Clark dropped by – going to the trouble of visiting her new office two floors down – to express how disappointed she was that she had not met Levine earlier.

“I was immediately struck by her openness to all of science and to her welcoming leadership,” said Levine. “I was impressed then, as I remain now, that a Senate-confirmed appointee of President Gerald Ford – would regret not being fully accessible to new staff. Well that was Betsy!”

Levine said she saw Clark as a mentor and someone who thought a lot about science policy leadership, including “the challenges, barriers and opportunities for women in science and her deep appreciation of the social and behavioral sciences.”

Clark’s leadership skills and dedication were on full display in 1981, added Levine, when the administration of President Ronald Regan sought to reduce federal science investments.

“Betsy put her principles into action,” Levine said. “She took leadership steps to ensure the viability of the social and behavioral sciences. She was courageous in what she was willing to say and do – a woman scientist, high in integrity and high in intellect is a trailblazer for all of science.”

[Associated image credit: Jim Gordon]