#WomenOfUK: First Woman Ph.D. Graduate Virginia McClure

By Whitney Hale

Virginia Clay McClure's senior photo from the university's yearbook. Photo courtesy of UK Special Collections Research Center.

The University of Kentucky community is celebrating Women’s History Month. Throughout March, UKNow will feature the women — past and present — on whose shoulders we stand and whose hard work has made our achievements possible. With a combination of fierce resolve and deep compassion, UK women have left indelible marks on our university. Join us as we highlight these #WomenOfUK.

The first woman who received a Ph.D. from UK said that her department chairman did not "want a woman to get a doctor's degree." Despite those words, Virginia Clay McClure, a native of Mt. Sterling, Kentucky, received her doctoral degree in American history in 1934.

McClure first came to UK for her undergraduate studies and earned an A.B. (same as a Bachelor of Arts) degree in 1912. She later would earn her master's degree from the university in 1928. After getting her baccalaureate degree, McClure taught for a year in Middlesboro, Kentucky, another year in Paducah, Kentucky, and seven years in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

Soon after, she returned to Lexington, where she taught for nine and a half years in Fayette County's school system. At this point, she took two and a half years off from work to complete her doctorate.

McClure's dissertation was "The Settlement of the Kentucky Appalachian Region," about which it was noted "nothing had been done before." McClure did significant original research for the dissertation and made several trips to Eastern Kentucky with Katherine Pettit, who had taught in settlement schools, including Pine Mountain School, which she helped to establish.

McClure planned to teach at the college level but after finishing her dissertation during the Depression, colleges were laying off faculty rather than hiring them. Instead, the educator returned to Fayette County's school system, then Lexington City Schools, and taught United States history and government at Henry Clay High School from 1934-1959, a position that McClure found quite rewarding.

Outside of the classroom, McClure was a member of Central Christian Church; Kappa Delta Pi Honorary; Kentucky and National Retired Teachers Associations; Salvation Army Auxiliary; Cardinal Hill Hospital Auxiliary; and numerous historical societies. She was also a charter member of the Lexington Rose Society, twice serving as president, and was a member of the American Rose Society.

McClure passed away in 1980 at 91 years of age.

Information on McClure was provided by the Special Collections Research Center at UK Libraries. The center sustains the Commonwealth’s memory and serves as the essential bridge between past, present and future. By preserving materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of Kentucky, the SCRC provides rich opportunities for students to expand their worldview and enhance their critical thinking skills. SCRC materials are used by scholars worldwide to advance original research and pioneer creative approaches to scholarship. UK Libraries SCRC is the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press, the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center, the Bert T. Combs Appalachian Collection, the John G. Heyburn Initiative and ExploreUK.

The University of Kentucky is increasingly the first choice for students, faculty and staff to pursue their passions and their professional goals. In the last two years, Forbes has named UK among the best employers for diversity and INSIGHT into Diversity recognized us as a Diversity Champion two years running. UK is ranked among the top 30 campuses in the nation for LGBTQ* inclusion and safety and the Chronicle of Higher Education judged us a “Great College to Work for.” We are ranked among the top 10 percent of public institutions for research expenditures — a tangible symbol of our breadth and depth as a university focused on discovery that changes lives and communities. And our patients know and appreciate the fact that UK HealthCare has been named the state’s top hospital for three straight years. Accolades and honors are great. But they are more important for what they represent: the idea that creating a community of belonging and commitment to excellence is how we honor our mission to be not simply the University of Kentucky, but the University for Kentucky.


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