Catherine Jane MacKay

Catherine MacKay

Dean Catherine Jane MacKay (left) chatting with a friend

“Home Economics at Iowa State without Miss MacKay will seem much like the play of Hamlet with Hamlet left out.  She was the heart and soul of the division for so long that she came to personify it.”—From obituary for Catherine MacKay


As a young girl in Ontario, Canada, Catherine MacKay had always wanted an education.  When she was 15 she began attending a school 20 miles away from home because it had the best teacher in the vicinity.  Her schooling was cut short, however, when her mother died a year later and Catherine had to start caring for her four younger brothers and sisters.  When they were about to graduate, her uncle died and she had to raise her little cousin.  Then, in 1901 her sister-in-law passed away, so MacKay started caring for her three-year-old nephew.   

Finally, in 1905, with the support of her older brothers, she was able to realize her dream of an education.  At the age of 34, MacKay attended Drexel Institute, studying domestic science.  After graduating in 1907, she helped develop and supervise domestic science courses in Canada and Minnesota.  In the summers she continued her education at Fannie Farmer’s cooking school in Boston and at Columbia University, studying dietetics and nutrition.

When Virgilia Purmort became head of the home economics department in 1910, she persuaded her former Drexel classmate, McKay, to join her at Iowa State.  Soon afterwards, Purmort left to get married, and there was a restructuring at the college.   Home economics became its own division, and MacKay became its first dean in 1913.  In those early years, MacKay and the small staff had the extraordinary task of cleaning and preparing the home economics buildings themselves.

As its own division, under the leadership of Dean MacKay, home economics grew tremendously.  When MacKay came to Iowa State there were four instructors and 116 students.  When she died there were 50 instructors and 800 students, and the number of degrees multiplied 60 times.  Additionally, the extension program grew from almost nothing to seven state specialists and 25 home demonstration agents.  From 1916-1918 she was also President of the American Home Economics Association.

MacKay incorporated the idea of “practice houses” into the home economics course of study, based on her experience taking care of her family as a young woman.  She also helped lead Iowa farms and household through World War I, as a member of the U.S. Food Administration.

On July 4, 1917, MacKay told the Des Moines Register that “Sanity, not hysteria; cool calculation, not blind haste; scientific thoroughness, not spectacular trifling—these are the things that are demanded of Iowa and other cities in the present food crisis.”

In September of that year, she was appointed Home Economics Director for Iowa and worked under the supervision of the state’s Federal Food Administrator to arrange the official home economics program.  They adjusted the national food conservation program to mesh with local conditions, and worked to bring the plans to individual housekeepers.  The needs of the war helped prove the value of home economics.

MacKay helped arrange a Farm and Home Week in 1918 that featured talks themed around the war, covering food, the Red Cross, textiles and clothes, women and child labor and welfare, and food production and conservation.

Civic concerns and duties were a priority for MacKay throughout her life.  She was on the board of the League of Women Voters, and when she died she was vice president of the Iowa Equal Suffrage Association.  Iowa State’s first dean of home economics believed that students with a good education and strong ethics were a necessity in the rapidly changing world. 

MacKay died in 1921, after eleven years of service to the college.  She wrote a letter about the last graduating group of senior girls before she died, saying:  “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 a state of chaos.  It surely needs trained men and women of sincerity, of good sound judgment, of vision, and of constructive energy.  We need them everywhere---in the home, in the shops, in the factory, in the class room and wherever there are men and women to be led and boys and girls to be trained.”