EMS' oldest living alumna looks back on making history at Penn State

Meet Alexandra Tillson Filer, the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences’ oldest living woman graduate and the and the first woman to graduate with a degree in metallurgy from the college in 1938.

Born in 1916 in Franklin Furnace, N.J., Alexandra Tillson Filer, 97, was raised in one of the most important mining towns in the country at the time. Also known as the Franklin Mine, this mineral location was made famous through its production of rare zinc and manganese minerals. In its heyday, this mine produced more minerals – more than 300 different types – than any other mine in the United States. 

Filer’s father served as the superintendent at Franklin Mine for many years and she recalls sitting in a “…special little chair in my father’s office and listening to the conversations between engineers, geologists and salesmen.”

She also vividly remembers notable figures such as President Herbert Hoover, and mining engineer and former New Jersey Assistant State Geologist Frank Lewis Nason making regular appearances. Nason had been in charge of the Geological and Mining Exhibit at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and had included about 40 rocks and ore specimens from the Franklin Mine in the display.

“My father was a mining engineer, as was Mr. Hoover, so that’s how they knew each other. When he (Hoover) used to visit, he wasn’t yet president – he was the U.S. secretary of commerce under President Warren G. Harding.” On one occasion, Mr. Hoover addressed her directly, saying, “Speak up little girl, if you have any questions.”

Question she did, and it was this naturally driven curiosity for metals and mining that drove her to come to Pennsylvania in 1934 to study at the Pennsylvania State College, as it was then affectionately known. Her father had investigated colleges with programs in metallurgy (although Filer had wanted to study mineralogy) and decided that she should attend Penn State because he said “it had the best faculty.”

Back then, Filer had to overcome much opposition to women studying science and engineering.

She remembers quite vividly that when she went to her first metallurgy class, the professor said "What the hell are you doing in my class! Obviously he wasn't expecting a girl in his metallurgy class, even though my name was on the attendance sheet! He must have thought that my name ‘Alexandra’ was misspelled and was supposed to be ‘Alexander’ and was another male student.”

But thankfully things have changed since then. Gary Messing, distinguished professor of ceramic science and engineering and head of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, noted that "I can't imagine any professor asking this question today as women compromise 22 percent of our faculty and students today. Women fill critical leadership roles in departmental and University-wide student and research organizations."

Filer proved to be a hard worker, focusing the majority of her time on her studies. “As a student, I was recruited by the nation’s second oldest fraternity for women, Kappa Kappa Gamma. I didn’t do a lot of social events with the group though, as I spent most of my time working hard in school.”

Filer graduated in 1938 and was the first woman to graduate from Penn State with a degree in metallurgy. As Filer tells us, “The graduating class in metallurgy that year was small, just myself and seven young gentlemen.”

Alexandra Tillson Filer's 1938 diploma

Alexandra Tillson Filer’s 1938 diploma signed by Dean Edward Steidle, dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences from 1929 to 1953.

Image: Russell Filer

After her graduation from the relatively new metallurgy program, Filer would go on to marry a geologist, Russell Filer, and together they founded the Mineral of the Month Club. “We met after I moved to California, and we were introduced by the librarian at our local library. We discovered we were both interested in minerals.”

The club sent mineral specimens to schools and private collectors all over the world. Filer used her knowledge of both metallurgy and geology to dictate the fact sheets that accompanied each mineral sample. “My husband and I corresponded with people all over the world, gathering information and mineral samples. We got others interested in learning about mineralogy.”

Filer and her husband, Russell, currently reside in Yucaipa, Calif., where they have a large collection of both books and mineral samples from around the world. Filer is very pleased that more young women are now majoring in earth sciences and similar fields. We believe Alexandra Tillson Filer’s story is truly inspirational and serves as an example for young women pursuing careers in the sciences at Penn State today and in the future.

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Last Updated May 12, 2014