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Martha Munzer, MIT's oldest alumna, dies at 99

Class of 1922 members Martha Munzer (left), Bertha Dodge (center) and Marjorie Pierce at their 50th reunion at MIT. Ms. Pierce, a renowned architect, is 99; Ms. Dodge died in 1995.
Class of 1922 members Martha Munzer (left), Bertha Dodge (center) and Marjorie Pierce at their 50th reunion at MIT. Ms. Pierce, a renowned architect, is 99; Ms. Dodge died in 1995.

Martha Eiseman Munzer, the first woman to earn an MIT degree in electrochemical engineering, died on September 14 in a Florida nursing home, hours before its patients were evacuated to escape Hurricane Floyd. Ms. Munzer, who was MIT's oldest living alumna, would have been 100 on September 22.

A member of the Class of 1922, Ms. Munzer taught chemistry at the Fieldston School in Riverdale, NY for more than 30 years. In the 1930s, she and two associates campaigned to save natural habitat in Riverdale from development for educational use. In the 1960s, this same trio was offered the Wave Hill Estate by Mayor John Lindsay, and Mrs. Munzer served as the first educational director of Wave Hill. When she moved to Florida, she joined the Friends of the Everglades.

Ms. Munzer, whose favorite author was Henry James, published the first of her 11 books at age 52, most of them about ecological issues and planning. Through her writing, she was a pioneer in conservation education.

At age 79, she published a memoir, Full Circle: Rounding Out a Life. Isaac Corkland, an acquaintance in their youths, recognized her style when an excerpt was used in a writing class. They were married when she was 80 and he was 84.

Ms. Munzer received the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Award in a White House ceremony in 1993 and arrived at her 95th birthday party with galley proofs of a history of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, FL. At 93, she told the Miami Herald, "Every day I swim in an unheated pool and read a book. I believe older people need to exercise their minds by learning something new, and I try to do that daily."

Known as Mardie, or Marty, Ms. Munzer was educated in Ethical Culture schools and was a lifetime secular humanist. She published two articles in dialog with her grandchild, who became a fundamentalist Christian.

Ms. Munzer, who suffered a stroke recently, had lived in the Broward Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Fort Lauderdale for two years.

Her great-niece, Nina Zanger of Jamaica Plain, wrote about Aunt Marty in an essay that won first prize among fifth grade students in a town-wide contest in Brookline three years ago. Clearly, Ms. Munzer was a hero and a role model for her grandniece.

"My aunt inspires me to fulfill my dreams and to treat life well because you only have one chance to live it," Ms. Zanger said. "Whatever your dreams are, they can always be completed if you really want them. Your past can lead to a great future. Also no matter what your gender, you can complete any dream of yours if you have the will to do it.

"For example, Marty decided to go to MIT in 1918. The dean told her, 'Young lady, this is no place for you.' Marty replied, 'Well, if I pass the exams, will you take me?' The dean replied they'll have to. She studied, passed the exams and was accepted." When she applied to MIT, she used her first-name initial on the application, not revealing her gender.

Ms. Zanger said her Aunt Marty had passed on a formula for a happy, healthy life: exercise, eat well, get your rest, work hard, have lots of good friends and have fun. Ms. Zanger wrote: "According to Marty, the key words to life are these: endure the hard times, love, learn, marvel at the wonder of being alive in this awesome and wonderful universe. The last key word to life is laugh, not only over the tragic comedy in which we find ourselves the actors, but more especially for the very joy of being momentarily on the stage."

At the time, Ms. Munzer was swimming, hiking and exercising daily and leading an active social life. "I hope that when I turn 97 I'll be just like her and hopefully as athletic as she is!" Ms. Zanger wrote.

Ms. Munzer's first husband, Edward Munzer, and Mr. Corkland predeceased her. She is survived by twin daughters, Stella Loeb of Cold Spring, NY, and Martha Amato of Salem, OR; seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Donations in her memory may be made to the Scholarship Fund of the Ethical Culture Fieldston School. A memorial service is planned for 2pm on October 30 at the home of her nephew, John Vogel of Scarsdale, NY.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 29, 1999.

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