Ruth Anna Putnam

Ruth Anna Putnam
Faculty emerita
B.Sc. U.C.L.A., Ph.D. U.C.L.A.

Ruth Anna Putnam

Professor Emerita of Philosophy

Ruth Anna Putnam passed away on May 4th, 2019 after being with the Philosophy Department for 35 years. Professor Putnam served as chair of the Department 1979-1982 and 1990-1993. In 1998, she became Professor Emerita after inspiring students for decades. In 2020 the Philosophy Department created the Ruth Anna Putnam Essay Prize which recognizes an outstanding essay by a philosophy major or minor in the broad area of social and political philosophy. 

We invite you to read her obituary.  We have also shared a tribute to Ruth Anna Putnam's life and career written by her friend and colleague, Mary Kate McGowan.


Ruth Anna Putnam - A Tribute

By Mary Kate McGowan

Margaret Clapp ’30 Distinguished Alumna Professor of Philosophy


Despite the power of words, they cannot do justice to the life, accomplishments, or character of Ruth Anna Putnam.  Ruth Anna passed away peacefully at home in Arlington, MA, on May 4th, 2019; she was surrounded by all four of her children.  Ruth Anna died of complications of Parkinson’s Disease, an illness that she endured with the same courage, strength, perspective, and humility with which she lived her 91-year life.

An only child, Ruth Anna was born in Berlin in 1927 to a Jewish mother and a Christian father.  When she was 5, her anti-Nazi parents went into hiding and they sent her to live with her father’s parents; she would not see them again until she was 21 and they had all emigrated to the United States.  Raised in a Christian household, Ruth Anna embraced Judaism later in her life; it was a deliberate choice and even a political action.  In a 2006 interview with the Boston Globe, she said, of her family’s practice of Judaism, that “It was like spitting in Hitler’s eye”.

A professor of philosophy at Wellesley for 35 years, Ruth Anna began her academic career at UCLA where she first studied chemistry and then became enthralled with the philosophy of science.  She completed her Ph.D., under the supervision of Rudolph Carnap, in 1962.  She taught at UCLA and the University of Oregon before joining the Wellesley faculty in 1963. 

A world-renowned expert in American pragmatism, Richard J. Bernstein hailed her as “one of the most imaginative and vital pragmatic thinkers of our time”.  Specializing in the works of William James and John Dewey, Ruth Anna edited the Cambridge Companion to William James.  In 2017, she published, along with her husband Hilary who was also a philosopher, Pragmatism as a Way of Life: The Lasting Legacy of William James and John Dewey, a collection of essays they had written on pragmatism.  This was well after her retirement from Wellesley in 1998, after which she remained intellectually active, despite her medical issues.


At Wellesley, Ruth Anna taught moral philosophy, social and political philosophy, and, of course, her legendary course in American philosophy.  Chairing the department twice, Ruth Anna inspired generations of Wellesley students to pursue careers in academic philosophy.  Although a shy and unassuming person, her legacies are substantial and many: her work, its influence, her children (Joshua, Samuel, Erika, and Maxima), her four granddaughters, her political activism, and her students.  She will be sorely missed by all those fortunate enough to have had their lives touched by the quiet and modest excellence of Ruth Anna Putnam.