Dorothy Zinberg

With the death of Dorothy Zinberg, one of the brightest stars in the Harvard firmament has sadly gone dim. She was a force in this community for some seven decades, forming close friendships with at least three generations of faculty, students and staff. We are unlikely to see her likes again for a long while.

Dorothy first came to Harvard as a graduate student in the early 50s. She wound up getting a Ph.D. in the social science of medicine, married a prominent psychoanalyst and professor of psychiatry at the Medical School, Norman Zinberg, and eventually became a research associate to Eric Erikson at Harvard Graduate School of Education. Norman did pioneering work on treatments for drug abuse.

Dorothy and Norman developed a remarkable network of good friends around the university in the 60s and 70s who enjoyed — as best I can tell — high spirited lives. For a number of years the Zinbergs lived on Frances Street where they where close neighbors with the Moynihans and Galbraiths. Residents liked to boast they had the only street in America with two neighbors who had served as ambassadors to India — not to mention the strong influence they had on U.S. public policy.

After Norman died in 1989, Dorothy moved to the other side of Cambridge (near Mt. Auburn St.) and her home became a well-attended salon where one would run into a mélange of fascinating characters from the satiric folk song musician, Tom Lehrer, to Nobelists in science to a handful of students she was mentoring. Conversations were sparkling. No one knew how, living alone, she pulled it off but she stayed at the center of the Harvard swirl for decades.

She loved her years with Erik Erikson pursuing his research on psychosocial theories of development as she did her years with Derek Bok, when in his presidency, he asked her to be his informal advisor on issues relating to the advancement of women. Dorothy became quite a feminist in those years and was until she died.

Dorothy played a significant role in the launch of two centers at Harvard Kennedy School. Ash Carter has attested to the contributions she made to the Belfer Center; she became friends with Ash when he was pursuing a Ph.D. in physics, often ensuring he went to bed at night with a full, rich stomach (as Ash has written, Dorothy had Julia Child cook for him once). Dorothy was also close to at least two other key figures at Belfer, Al Carnesale and Paul Doty.

I can attest that Dorothy also made significant contributions to the launch and rise of the Center for Public Leadership. From early days together as graduate students, she forged close bonds with Mort Zuckerman, staying among his guests each summer at his home in the Hamptons. She was also an ambassador for CPL in the creation of the Zuckerman Fellowships (a program that inspired many other donors to start their own programs). For several years running, Dorothy hosted a dinner in her home for Mort to spent time with his Fellows. More recently, she was a bridge builder to Mort’s two nephews, Eric and Jamie, who are now on the CPL advisory board. Dorothy in recent years was housed at CPL, where she counseled me and, this past year, Wendy Sherman.

Dorothy’s many friendships over the past decades stretched to Memorial Church, where she was a close confidante with the Reverend Peter Gomes along with Diana Eck and Dorothy Austin. Peter taught a popular undergraduate courses for many years on the history of Harvard; Dorothy was a gold mine of good stories and insights.

Finally, I might say a word about the relationship that my wife Anne and I enjoyed with Dorothy. I can’t quite put my finger on the flow over the years but we became a part of her inner circle and were privileged to spend many a dinner with her at the Charles, perhaps followed by a film. We knew we could count on her for a stimulating conversation, lots of laughs and — count on it — juicy gossip. Our last dinner with her was a few nights before she died; she was frail but in good spirits. To this day, I have appreciated a conversation I had with her some two decades ago whether I should leave Washington to join the Harvard Kennedy School faculty. Her enthusiasm about life there and at the Kennedy School was pivotal in our decision to come. She was a dear woman to us for decades and we will miss her for decades to come.

Read more about Dorothy Zinberberg's pioneering work in support of science and women in this piece from the Belfer Center.