Despite the power of words, they cannot do justice to the life, accomplishments, or character of Ruth Anna Putnam. Ruth Anna passed away peacefully at home in Arlington, Mass., on May 4, surrounded by all four of her children. Ruth Anna died of complications of Parkinson’s disease, an illness that she endured with the same courage, strength, perspective, and humility with which she lived her 91-year life. An only child, Ruth Anna was born in Berlin in 1927 to a Jewish mother and a Christian father. When she was 5, her anti-Nazi parents went into hiding, and they sent her to live with her father’s parents. She would not see her parents again until she was 21, and they had all emigrated to the United States. Raised in a Christian household, Ruth Anna embraced Judaism later in her life; it was a deliberate choice and even a political action. In a 2006 interview with the Boston Globe, she said, of her family’s practice of Judaism, that “it was like spitting in Hitler’s eye.”
A professor of philosophy at Wellesley for 35 years, Ruth Anna began her academic career at UCLA, where she first studied chemistry and then became enthralled with the philosophy of science. She completed her Ph.D., under the supervision of Rudolph Carnap, in 1962. She taught at UCLA and the University of Oregon before joining the Wellesley faculty in 1963.
A world-renowned expert in American pragmatism, Richard J. Bernstein, hailed her as “one of the most imaginative and vital pragmatic thinkers of our time.” Specializing in the works of William James and John Dewey, Ruth Anna edited The Cambridge Companion to William James. In 2017, she published, along with her husband, Hilary, who was also a philosopher, Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey, a collection of essays they had written on pragmatism. This was well after her retirement from Wellesley in 1998, after which she remained intellectually active, despite her medical issues.
At Wellesley, Ruth Anna taught moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, and, of course, her legendary course in American philosophy. Chairing the department twice, Ruth Anna inspired generations of Wellesley students to pursue careers in academic philosophy. Although a shy and unassuming person, her legacies are substantial and many: her work, its influence, her children and their spouses, her four granddaughters, her political activism, and her students. Ruth Anna Putnam will be sorely missed by all those fortunate enough to have had their lives touched by her quiet and modest excellence.
Mary Kate McGowan ’90 is Margaret Clapp ’30 Distinguished Alumna Professor of Philosophy.