Alison Comish Thorne

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Alison Comish Thorne, in 1938, became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in the Economics Department of Iowa State College. Her mentors were the two women then on the economics faculty: Elizabeth Ellis Hoyt and Margaret G. Reid. Alison Comish, who in 1935-36 had an interim year of graduate study at the University of Chicago with Hazel Kyrk as her mentor, specialized in consumption economics, a field pioneered by her three women professors.

Alison Comish was born May 9, 1914 in Chicago while her father, Newel Howland Comish, was doing graduate work in economics and sociology at the University of Chicago. The next year he moved to the University of Wisconsin, where he took a masters degree, after which he took a position at Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University). In 1929 Newel Comish received his Ph.D. from Wisconsin.

Louise Larson Comish, Alison's mother, grew up in Snowflake, Arizona and graduated at the head of her high school class. Louise Comish, a full-time homemaker, was an early president of the Corvallis (Oregon) PTA Council, helped create the first public library in that community, and when her husband joined the University of Oregon faculty, became president of the faculty wives' organization. As a longtime member of the Democratic Party, she often served as judge of elections.

Alison Comish married Wynne Thorne on August 3, 1937 and completed her Ph.D. dissertation in absentia. It was entitled "Evaluations of Consumption in Modern Thought." Wynne Thorne had completed his doctoral degree in soil science in 1936 and remained at Iowa State the ensuing year as a faculty member in agronomy. After their marriage, Alison and Wynne moved to College Station Texas, where Wynne was on the agronomy faculty of Texas A & M for two years. He then took a position at Utah State Agricultural College (now Utah State University) where he spent the rest of his career. He became Director of the Utah Agricultural Experiment Station and was the first Vice President for Research.

In her autobiography, Leave the Dishes in the Sink: The Memoirs of a Liberal Alison Thorne wrote:

“Over the decades I reconciled aspects of my life which many people at the time regarded as contradictory. I was wife of an academic administrator, mother of five children, and yet in spite of a late start, achieved an academic career of my own. I was a wife-mother and a feminist too, in spite of a strand of contemporary feminism that said family and feminism are incompatible. I was among the individuals who made feminism respectable on our university campus. Throughout my adult life I did community work, believing it vital to social justice. Most remarkable of all--in spite of living in conservative Cache Valley, Utah for over fifty years--I remained a liberal.

Antinepotism rulings in Utah kept Alison Thorne off the faculty until 1965, when thanks to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and an invitation from a professor in the College of Family Life, she began teaching a class, which she invented, called "Family in Its Social Setting."

Another noteworthy piece of 1964 legislation was the Economic Opportunity Act which undergirded federal "war on poverty" programs. Alison Thorne was a key figure in organizing these programs in three northern Utah counties. As a consequence, the U.S.U. Sociology Department invited her to teach a class for them. For the remainder of her career, Alison Thorne taught in both sociology and in the Department of Home Economics and Consumer Education. She held the position of Lecturer and was ineligible for tenure because she insisted on keeping her teaching just under half time in order to give time to her family and to community work.

Wynne Thorne died of cancer in 1979, the year Alison turned 65. She continued teaching and community work and in 1985, after a university-wide blue-ribbon committee reviewed her credentials, she was promoted to full professor. Because of her age she became "professor emeritus." With a twinkle in her eye she remarks that she is the only person in the history of Utah State University to leap from lecturer to full professor in one fell swoop.

Alison Thorne's publications include articles in the American Economic Review School and Society Social Forces and The Gifted Child Quarterly. She has chapters in anthologies on educating gifted children higher education and the uses of natural resources. In 1985 she presented the Utah State University Faculty Honor Lecture which she titled "Visible and Invisible Women in the History of Land-Grant Colleges, 1890-1940)' Alison Thorne’s papers, including her published and unpublished writings are in the Utah State University Archives.

Those interested in the history of women economists, and in the history of Iowa State University, may want to consult two papers in the Iowa State University Archives (these have been deposited with Elizabeth Hoyt's papers in Box 27, File 12):

Alison Comish Thorne, “Women Mentoring Women in Economics in the 1930s,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the Allied Social Science Associations, Boston, January 1994.

Alison Comish Thorne, “Elizabeth Ellis Hoyt, Humanitarian Economist (1893-1980),” paper presented at annual meetings of the National Women’s Studies Association, Iowa State University, June 1994.

Alison Thorne has done extensive community service, including serving on the Utah State Building Board, the Advisory Council to the Utah State Department of Employment Security, the Governor’s Committee on the Status of Women, the Logan City Board of Education, and the Northern Utah Community Action Program. She chaired all except the Building Board. 

These contributions have been recognized by distinguished service awards from several of these boards and councils and from Utah State University, the American Association of University Women, Business and Professional Women, and Soroptomists. She also received the Governor’s Award for Community Service.

Alison Thorne helped bring the contemporary women’s movement to Utah State University in 1972 when she helped organize and served on the Status of Women Committee and helped teach the first women’s studies course. She taught the introductory women’s studies course for 14 years and was president of the Advisory Board of the USU Women’s Center for several years after it was created. In 1981 she organized and served as the first coordinator of the USU program on Women and International Development (WID). 

Alison Thorne is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the AAUW, the League of Women Voters, the Committee on the Status of Women in the Economics Profession, and the International Association for Feminist Economics.

Alison and Wynne Thorne together raised a crop of liberals who were also feminists. In order of birth they were:

Kip Stephen Thorne, Richard Feynman Professor of Astrophysics, California Institute of Technology

Barrie Thorne, Streisand Professor in the Program for the Study of Women and Men in Society and in the Department Sociology, University of Southern California

Sandra Thorne-Brown, who has advanced degrees in both urban forestry and elementary education and is currently teaching fifth grade in the Sarah Moore Green Elementary School, Knoxville, Tennessee

Avril Thorne, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of California, Santa Cruz

Lance Gaylord Thorne, designer and builder of fine furniture and an activist in the environmental movement, Cave Junction, Oregon

These five, and Wynne Thorne’s brother, Marlowe Thorne (M.S., Iowa State, 1941, and Professor Emeritus of Agronomy at the University of Illinois), presented this brick to honor Alison Comish Thorne on her 80th birthday, May 9, 1994.

Submitted on 9/22/94