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UC Davis Centennial
100 years of service, solutions, impact
Photo: Celeste Turner Wright

Celeste Turner Wright was known for her academic leadership and her intellectual fervor. (UC Davis archival photo)

Looking Back

1928-79: Celeste Turner Wright

Celeste Turner Wright was a woman of firsts at UC Davis.

She was the first female faculty member with a doctorate, the first tenured female faculty member, the first campus drama instructor, the first humanities professor to receive a campus Faculty Research Lecturer award and one of the first campus women to have a building named after her.

When she died in 1999, Wright left a legacy that includes the development of the campus's humanities curriculum, a theatre building named after her, a poetry contest she created and endowed, and countless students who benefited from her academic fervor.

Wright came to the campus in 1928 as a 22-year-old hired to teach and, in her words, to "be a refining influence on the farm boys." She held a doctorate in English from UC Berkeley as she began what would be a 51-year academic career.

She chaired the English department in 1928-34, chaired the Division of Languages and Literature in 1934-52 and chaired the Department of English, Dramatic Art and Speech in 1952-55.

From the moment Wright came to UC Davis until many years after her retirement, she immersed herself in campus life. She lived in the dorms as a young professor, married one of her students, directed more than 15 plays, helped establish a Davis chapter of Phi Beta Kappa and, even as recently as 1998, repeated a turn as a Picnic Day marshal, having done so previously in 1975.

She also helped develop UC Davis into a complex research university. She arrived at a fledgling campus — known then as the University Farm annex of UC Berkeley — that had 350 students, eight of whom were women; she was one of two English department faculty members.

She retired in 1979 from an English department of 20 professors, and a university with three professional schools and 20,000 students.

Take a look back at UC Davis' history