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An influential woman

by Michelle Salzman
Deborah Harkness, professor of history at USC Dornsife, has been named a Woman of Influence by Mount Holyoke College, her alma mater. (Photo/Vania Stoyanova)
Photo: Deborah Harkness, professor of history at USC Dornsife, has been named a Woman of Influence by Mount Holyoke College, her alma mater. (Photo/Vania Stoyanova)

Deborah Harkness remembers the “aha moment” that set her off on an intellectual journey. She was an undergraduate Renaissance studies major at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., when one day in class, a history professor astounded her by posing one simple question:

“How do you know what you think you know?” he asked.

A light bulb lit up for Harkness, professor of history at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. When it comes to the study of history, the query demanded that she approach her understandings of the past with a keen eye. Everyone brings his or her singular perspective to the pursuit of knowledge, she realized, and context is everything.

“I thought, ‘Well, how do I know what I know is any more believable than what people believed in the past?’ People believed the Earth was in the center of the universe, and they had very sophisticated explanations to back up their theory.”

That question encouraged Harkness to approach the history of science in an open and nonjudgmental way.

“What a powerful experience at an early age,” she said.

That experience continues to resonate with Harkness, whose research focuses on the history of science from 1400 to 1700, a period in which science and magic were not considered distinctly separate from one another.

She recently published two works of fiction that weave together history and the supernatural: A Discovery of Witches (Viking Adult, 2011) and Shadow of Night (Viking Adult, 2012). Both novels, the first two installments of the All Souls Trilogy, have made The New York Times best-seller list.

For her accomplishments, Mount Holyoke College has named Harkness a Woman of Influence. The university’s list recognizes prestigious alumnae who have used their education to contribute, inspire and lead.

Others to receive the honor include Frances Perkins, the first woman to hold a post in the United States Cabinet; poet Emily Dickinson; trailblazing physician and anesthesiologist Virginia Apgar; and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein.

The Mount Holyoke  list commemorates the 175th anniversary of the university’s opening. Founded in 1837, Mount Holyoke is a research liberal arts college for women. It was the first member of the Seven Sisters consortium of colleges — the female equivalent of the once predominantly male Ivy League — which came to include Vassar College, Wellesley College, Smith College, Radcliffe College, Bryn Mawr College and Barnard College.

“For our Mount Holyoke Gallery of Women of Influence, we selected alumnae who exemplify the bold and influential ways Mount Holyoke women engage the world,” said Patricia VandenBerg, executive director of communication at Mount Holyoke.

“In many instances this has included breaking barriers and making boundaries permeable. In Deborah’s case, her work in the history of science has been groundbreaking, and her exquisite ability to make scholarship accessible through popular culture makes her exemplary and influential. We’re very proud to claim Deborah as our own.”

After earning her bachelor’s degree from Mount Holyoke in 1986, Harkness earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University and a PhD from the University of California, Davis. She joined USC Dornsife in 2004, the same year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship to study the history of science and technology. She has also received fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies, the National Science Foundation and the National Humanities Center.

In addition to the All Souls novels, Harkness has written two nonfiction works: The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution (Yale University Press, 2007), which looks at the scientific community in 16th-century London; and John Dee’s Conversations With Angels: Cabala, Alchemy, and the End of Nature (Cambridge University Press, 1999), about Dee, a natural philosopher in Elizabethan England.

Harkness said being named a Woman of Influence by Mount Holyoke is an honor.

“To think that somehow I could be included among so many women who since 1837 have been making a difference because of their education is humbling,” she added.

Education is a lifelong journey, Harkness said, and she aims to give her students the skills and critical thinking ability to continue seeking discoveries well after graduation.

“Those are the things that I got from my undergraduate education, and I absolutely want to give that sense to the students in my classroom,” Harkness noted.

Now Harkness poses questions to her students at USC Dornsife to inspire a deeper connection to the past, much like the question she encountered as a student at Mount Holyoke. She also hopes to instill empathy in her students so that they study history with an open mind.

“When I’m teaching my students about Henry VIII, I tell them to remember he was a teenager when he succeeded the throne,” Harkness said. “He was 19 — you’re 19! What would you do if you were put in charge of our country?”

She added: “Hopefully it sticks with them that the people in the past were doing the best that they could in very challenging circumstances and that it is more important to understand them than judge them.”