Nelly Bosma '24 was first alumna to earn doctoral degree
By Richard Harms, College Archivist

In 1916, Nelly Jeanette Bosma, the oldest of five children of Elizabeth Vander Til and Reverend Menno J. Bosma (he had died of tuberculosis at age 38 in 1912), entered the Preparatory department of Calvin College. This department served as the local Christian high school until Grand Rapids Christian High School was established. Eight years later Bosma graduated from Calvin with a bachelor's degree, having distinguished herself academically and athletically.

Nelly BosmaWhile still in the “Prep” department, Professor John Van Haitsma selected her to be a laboratory assistant in botany, an appointment she held until 1924. Her classmates also recognized her academic ability and in their 1920 prophesy said, “As the first lady member of Calvin's faculty, Miss Nelly Bosma was teaching Botany (sic).” Four years later, as she completed her college work, they dubbed her “Queen of the Laboratories.” She also excelled in athletics, leading the undefeated women's basketball team that outscored opponents 85-44 in the seven-game 1919–1920 season.

After graduating from Calvin, Bosma taught at Holland Christian High School for two years. Then she enrolled at the University of Michigan, specializing in parasitology, earning an MA in 1927 and becoming the first Calvin alumna to earn a PhD in 1931. Her dissertation, “The life history of the trematode Alaria Mustelae, sp. nov,” is still cited by researchers. But she did not become the first female faculty member at Calvin as had been prophesied; another classmate, Johanna Timmer, who taught English and was the first dean of women, has that distinction.

Bosma did become a college faculty member, teaching biology for two years at Beaver (Pennsylvania) College, now Arcadia University, then for three years at Chicago Christian College, a junior college that operated during the 1930s. In 1936 she joined the biology faculty of the two-year-old Wright Junior College, at the time one of three junior colleges operated by the Chicago board of education. In addition to teaching, she continued her research in parasitology, published in professional journals and wrote two chapters of an introductory biology text used during the 1950s and 1960s.

By the time Calvin's dramatic enrollment increase of the 1950s created faculty openings in biology, Bosma was head of her department at Wright College and thought her roots were “too deeply planted” to consider relocation. After retiring from Wright in 1966, she returned to her native Grand Rapids and then partially fulfilled the 1920 prophesy, teaching biology at Calvin on a part-time basis through the 1969–1970 school year.