Skip to main content

MacKay, Catherine Jane

Published onOct 01, 2021
MacKay, Catherine Jane

(February 24, 1871 – August 21, 1921)

Quick Facts

First head of the Division of Home Economics, Catherine MacKay instituted practice houses, working with students and through extension.

Catherine Josephine MacKay, Dean, Home Economics 1912-1921, 1930 by Jean Mather (Canadian)
Oil on canvas
Gift of family of Catherine MacKay. In the Art on Campus Collection, University Museums, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. U96.3 Location: Iowa State University, MacKay Hall

Catherine Jane MacKay was born February 24th 1871 in Tiverton, Ontario, Canada to parents of Scotch descent. Catherine was the middle child in a family of nine. When she was about twelve her pioneering family moved to Manitoba. She attended country school until she was about 15; then she went to school 20 miles away where there was a first-class teacher which was unusual in those days. In August 1887, Catherine’s mother died leaving mothering to 16 year old Catherine who cared for her four younger brothers and sisters. In 1905, when they were grown, Catherine was free from family duties so she could go to college. She enrolled in a domestic science program at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia when she was 34. She graduated in 1907 and she received an honorary Masters from Drexel in 1917.. Later, MacKay studied at Teachers College and Mrs. Farmer’s School of Cooking in Boston.

Following her graduation, Miss MacKay established courses in domestic science at the YWCA in Minneapolis and supervised domestic science teaching in the public schools of Winnipeg before she came to Iowa State College (now Iowa State University) in 1910. According to Callie May Bliss, “Miss MacKay came to Iowa State firm in her belief that ‘homemaking is the finest and greatest of arts and no woman can know too much to succeed in it.’”1

MacKay came to Iowa State in 1910 as the assistant to Domestic Science department head Virgilia Purmort. She took over as head of the department the next year following Miss Purmort’s marriage and departure. In 1911 she oversaw moving the department into the newly constructed Domestic Technology Building; later the Home Economics Building and now MacKay Hall. She became dean when the department became the Division of Home Economics in 1913. During her tenure at Iowa State, she directed a significant increase in student enrollment, from 95 to 800, and the number of degrees granted multiplied by 60 times. In addition the faculty and staff increased. The extension service members increased to seven state specialists and twenty-five county home demonstration agents. MacKay also initiated the use of “practice houses” for teaching and learning where students learned how to manage households and farmsteads in a state-of-the-art hands-on domestic service. During the last couple of years of her life, MacKay lived in the practice house and students who also lived there learned to calculate and prepare a diabetic diet for her diabetes. These practice houses later became the “home management houses” which continued as a graduation requirement until the late 1960s.

Dean MacKay taught not just college students, but also took her teaching to the women of the state through the Iowa State Extension Service and work with a variety of women’s clubs. Her interest in community affairs gradually expanded to national contributions; she served as the fifth president of the American Home Economics Association, 1916-1918. U.S. President Herbert Hoover appointed her a member of the United States Food Administration during World War I, and she was state chairwoman of the Iowa State Women’s Council for National Defense. During World War I, under her direction, the department responded to urgent requests for assistance in teaching students and the general public the arts of conservation of food including canning, drying, pickling foods and making ‘war’ breads and all other substitutes as needed for animal fats, meat and sugar; ultimately all areas of home rationing for the war effort.

MacKay was a member of Phi Kappa Phi, Omicron Nu, Theta Sigma Phi and a member of Mortar Board and Jack O’Lantern, local honoraries of the time. At one time, she was also a consultant for the “new housekeeping” department of Ladies Home Journal and at the time of her death she was vice-president of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association. One of MacKay’s strengths continued to be her involvement in all aspects of Iowa State, professional organizations and the broader world.

Alumnus, May 1st 1912 in an article concerning the dedication of the Home Economics Building, later renamed MacKay Hall in honor of Dean MacKay, one of her colleagues said,

“Miss MacKay has all along had vision to see what might be; she has foresight to plan well for growth; she has had ideals for high standards; she has had skill in presenting her plans; she has had tact in securing sympathy and support for home economics on the campus and throughout Iowa: she has had good judgment in surrounding herself with a capable, devoted instructing staff; she has ability to maintain the best spirit in a large organization; she has withal, patience. If it had not been for this combination of qualities, the story or this past eleven years might have been different.”

MacKay died August 21, 1921, and her spirit is typified by her last message to her Senior class.

“Will you find some way of expressing to the Senior girls my bitter disappointment in not being there to see them graduate and to bid them God speed. They are all so dear to me. Their future means so much to the future of our state and country; their responsibilities are greater than have ever before fallen to the lot of young people. The world is in chaos; it sorely needs well trained men and women of sincerity, of good sound judgment, of vision, and of constructive energy. We need everywhere, in the home, in the shop, in the factory, in the class room and wherever there are men and women to be led and boys and girls to be trained.”

MacKay Hall was renamed in her honor in 1926, when construction was completed on the new wing which also included the Catherine J. MacKay Auditorium named in her honor.

Selected Sources

Eppright, Ercel Sherman and Elizabeth Storm Ferguson. A Century of Home Economics at Iowa State University. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1971.

Ruch, Colene. “Hardships tell the Tale of a Home Economics Dean. Iowa Homemaker 31, no. 1 (April 1959): 7+.

“College Honors Memory of Dean MacKay”. The Alumnus: Iowa State College 31, no. 4 (October 1930): 101-102.

Fisher, Genevieve. “Catherine Josephine [Jane] MacKay”. Journal of Home Economics 13 no. 11 (November 1921): 559-560.

MacKay, Catherine. Letter to Home Economics Division, Home Economics Teachers, November 10, 1917. MacKay, Catherine, Papers, 1911-1989. RS12/1/2.

No comments here
Why not start the discussion?