When Dr. Orma Fitch Butler was sixty-four years old, she was still Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, a job which she had acquired partly by accident. She had the qualifications, dedication and experience necessary to become a full professor, but the University of Michigan did not begin hiring women professors regularly prior to the 1960s. She did, however occupy one of the more well-paid positions in the college of Literature, Science and Arts at the time.
Orma Fitch Butler was born in Fitchburg, Michigan in 1875. She attended high schools in Mason and Lansing prior to enrolling at the University of Michigan. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in 1897, and her Masters in 1901. In between her studies, she earned money teaching in public schools in both Michigan and Illinois. In 1907 she earned her Ph.D., with a detailed thesis on Marcus Aurelius entitled “Studies in the Life of Heliogabalus.” It was published in the second volume of Francis Kelsey’s acclaimed Humanistic Series. Immediately following earning her PhD, she held full professorships at several institutions, including Oxford College in Ohio and Belmont College. But no professorship was offered when she returned to the University of Michigan in 1912, to do prestigious research alongside Latin Professor Francis Kelsey.
Though Butler’s held a lower title than Francis Kelsey, the work she performed with him was closer to that of an equal partner and colleague in research. In 1924-25, she accompanied Kelsey to Carthage and Pompeii, recovering through field excavations numerous artifacts which were brought back to the University of Michigan. Before there was an official museum to house their collections, she organized and cared for the acquisitions. She was known for her intimate knowledge of each acquisition. She worked alongside Museum Director J.G. Winter following Kelsey’s death to develop a Museum of Classical Archaeology to exhibit the items and educate the public on their history. She held the position of Curator from the establishment of the Francis W. Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in 1928 until her death.
In addition to conducting research and managing a museum, Butler held positions in numerous organizations, including acting as secretary for the local Phi Beta Kappa chapter, and being a member of such historical organizations as the American Philological Association and the Archaeological Institute of America.
As for teaching, Butler went as high as a woman could go in the University of Michigan at the time. An “emergency” necessitated her picking up a large section of a Classical Studies class in 1922. She ended up holding the title of Assistant Professor for Latin I and II. Butler was described as “a teacher of noteworthy ability,” whose “skill made work in the classroom profitable and enjoyable, and whose broad sympathy went far beyond the immediate problems of instruction and learning.” She was famous for never missing a day of work due to illness, and was even said to be planning her return to work while on her deathbed. Upon her passing in 1938, the Board of Regents penned her a glowing biography, and in 1944 honored her with a house name in Mary Markley Hall.
- Special July meeting July 29, 1938, Proceedings of the Board of Regents (1936-1939), Board of Regents Records.
- University of Michigan Alumni Association, “In Memorium: Orma Fitch Butler,” The Michigan Alumnus (October 2, 1937) 44: 461.
- Walter A. Donnelly, ed., University of Michigan: an Encyclopedic Survey (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1958).
- University of Michigan Alumni Association, “Watches Over University’s Archaeological Collections,” The Michigan Alumnus (October 12, 1935) 42: 248.
- Donnelly, University of Michigan.
- Annual June meeting June 17 1938, Proceedings of the Board of Regents (1936-1939), Board of Regents Records.
- University of Michigan Alumni Association, “In Memorium,” 461.
“Portrait of Orma F. Butler,” University of Michigan Faculty and Staff Portraits.