Chloe Owings as a Knox graduate
"If you would know what a fascinating thing a woman can make of her life against almost insuperable odds, listen to the story of the rise of Chloe Owings - up from a Kansas farm to distinguished honors at the Sorbonne." - Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, "Chloe Owings: The Story of a Girl Who Exchanged her Sunbonnet for the 'Bonnet de Sorbonne,' The Woman Citizen
Chloe Owings was born in Illinois and then moved with her family to Kansas as a child. She was responsible for working on her family's farm and for taking care of her stepmother, who was ill with tuberculosis throughout Owings' early life. Her stepmother passed away when Owings was nineteen and, since she no longer had a compelling reason to stay at home, Owings began to contemplate returning to school. According to Dunbar Bromley, Owings "landed at Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois, with $1.60 in her pocket." An article in the Independent Star-News, published January 25, 1959, notes that the two material possessions Owings brought with her from Kansas were a night gown and a toothbrush.
She worked her way through Knox College performing "the hardest kind of manual labor to make her expenses" - working at a mitten factory in Galesburg. Owings wrote in The Knox Alumnus about her time as a student at Knox: "As I look back on those days when the homes of such people as the Raubs, the Neals, the Sellews, the Congers, the Longdens and others were open to a very awkward, scared, badly dressed student, I wonder at their patience and humanity. Indeed, I am very frank to say that it is to these people that I owe the greatest part of my joy in living and I do have a very deep joy in living."
After graduating from Knox, she went on to Washington University and received a Master's degree from Washington University. Two years after leaving Washington University she became the General Secretary of the Associated Charities of Poughkeepsie, New York.
As a social worker, it was natural that she became interested in war work, and in the fall of 1916, she traveled to France to lend a hand in the war effort. Dunbar Bromley states, "Perhaps the most picturesque of her war experiences was one which sent her up to Noyon, with her bed and baggage and three and a half tons of sugar on her train, all for the purpose of making jars and jars of currant jam, that the morale of the French soldiers might benefit from a change in army diet." During this culinary effort, Owings and her compatriots made more than seven thousand jars of jam in four weeks!
"Knox Girl Serves Stricken France"
"My work? Well, it has so many sides to it that it is long to explain. First: the idea is to study the problem of hospital food. Is the food allowed good food and is it well cooked? .... The problem is tremendously interesting and pregnant with possibilities - possibilities so big in their final effect that it seems to big to be realized. But being born of Irish and Welsh pioneers and having done a bit of pioneering myself, and believing as I do with all my soul that if a thing is for me to do I'll find - or rather be shown - the way, - I just keep on working and my brain is now going at such a terrific speed that I hardly check it long enough to write to you. I am not even going to take time to try to tell you the details of my work, for if I can work out what seems the logical and normal fruition, what we are doing now, while helpful, will be so radically changed that it isn't worth discussing now.
All my college training - all my housekeeping experience (and how much more important to have done things with my own hands than just to have seen others do it!) in fact, all, every scrap of experience and training life has given me is standing me in good stead in the workin gout of the idea. Within two or three months I will know if it is workable and then I can write you all about it.
Meanwhile if you wish a mental image of just this one out of the thousands of American women here, think of me in a big white nurse's apron - white cap - white shoes - directing and organizing a big kitchen which for the moment is doing the 'petit regime' for two divisions - about 120 to 180 men - and 'sur-alimentation' for about 150 more."
-- Letter from Chloe Owings to Mary Scott on July 2, 1918, published in The Knox Alumnus 1:6 (Aug., 1918): 157.
Chloe Owings' war service
Chloe R. Owings in the yearbook
After the war ended Owings chose to stay on in France. She studied at the Sorbonne and produced an investigative thesis regarding juvenile delinquency in France, which led her to write a book on the same subject. It was this book that was "crowned" by the French Academy of Political and Moral Sciences. She was also the first woman to graduate with her doctorate and honors from the Sorbonne in 1923. While in France, Owings also adopted a French girl, Marguerite, and brought her back to the United States when Marguerite was six. Back in the United States, Owings was awarded an honorary degree from Knox.
Chloe Owings with her honorary degree
Chloe and Marguerite Owings
Dunbar Bromley closes her brief biography of Owings by noting, "Miss Owings's life, in its richness and high level of achievement, seems much more remarkable to you and me than it does to her. She insists that whatever she has accomplished has been done as part of the day's work and because she had the good fortune to be born in America."
Owings later became a professor at the University of Minnesota.