Best of Both Worlds
First woman to graduate from Jefferson thrives in a “man’s world”
Sonia Schorr Sloan, the first woman to graduate from Jefferson, passed away this month at the age of 91. To honor this groundbreaking woman, we are reprinting this profile on Mrs. Sloan, originally published in May 2019.
The June 10, 1950 edition of the Wilmington Morning News carried a front-page story that began, “Miss Sonia Ernestine Schorr, 22 … made history yesterday at Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, when she received her master’s degree in bacteriology. ... Miss Schorr advanced to the platform and stood alone as she accepted her diploma following similar presentations to 152 male medical graduates. The occasion called for special and highly commendatory remarks from college officials and enthusiastic applause from the hundreds who witnessed it.”
A month later, the newly minted graduate would begin her scientific career as an instructor at Temple Medical School and an assistant in its new virus diagnostic laboratory. Two years later, she became the first woman hired to work in DuPont’s Central Research Laboratory
“My mother was a teacher; my father was a businessman and a Democratic representative [in the Delaware legislature],” says Sonia Schorr Sloan. “My grandmother marched with the suffragettes. I grew up in a house filled with a lot of liberal thought and action, so it’s not strange that I went into a man’s world at one point.”
She recalls the train ride from Delaware to Jefferson on her first day. “I was just terrified of this man’s world,” she says.
When she arrived on campus, Sloan was interviewed by Kenneth Goodner, PhD, professor of bacteriology and immunology. “His first words to me were, ‘Why do you want to do this? Why don’t you go get married?’ And I said, ‘In due time.’”
When she signed on at DuPont, her employer told her, “The salary for a woman with your degrees and your experience is $4,800 a year.”
That was twice her Temple salary. “It didn’t occur to me to say, ‘What do you mean for a woman?’” she says.
After seven years at DuPont, Sloan left to become a stay-at-home mom when her son was born. “If you have children, you owe them a life,” she says. Today, Sloan has two sons, five granddaughters, and three great-grandchildren, and she’s been married to her husband, Gilbert, for more than six decades. “Of all that Gil and I have done, we are most proud of our children and their families,” she confides.
One of the things Sloan never left behind as a scientist or a mom was a fierce passion for political activism, especially for reproductive choice and women’s rights. In the 1950s, she was a leader of the Young Democrats of Northern New Castle County. Hoping to end the Vietnam War, she co-chaired the Delaware campaign for Eugene McCarthy when he ran for president in 1968. She’s a close friend to former vice president Joe Biden and has worked on every one of his campaigns since 1970. “That’s the fun of Delaware,” she says. “You get to know all the politicians, you know the senators by their first names—you can call them up.”
As her children grew more independent, Sloan turned to fundraising and founding nonprofit organizations to advance what she calls “good causes.” She’s had a hand in establishing the Wellness Community (now Cancer Support Community Delaware), Public Allies Delaware, Agenda for Delaware Women, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.
As a volunteer and professional fundraiser, Sloan has brought in some $100 million for causes she believes in, like the Food Bank of Delaware, the Delaware College of Art and Design, and the West End Neighborhood House. She served as president of the board for Planned Parenthood of Delaware and was interim president while fundraising and constructing a new building. “I absolutely believe that good reproductive health leads to better families, better parents, and better communities,” she says. Later, Sloan went to work for the YWCA of New Castle County as financial director and eventually struck out on her own as a development consultant.
She has been inducted into the Hall of Fame of Delaware Women and was recognized with the State of Delaware’s highest honor, the Order of the First State. In April, Sloan was honored with the Jefferson College of Life Sciences’ Alumni Lifetime Achievement Award. She is not only the first women to earn a degree from Jefferson; she is also the first student—male or female—to earn a degree from the graduate program that eventually became the College of Life Sciences.
“I come from a long line of standing up for what you think,” she says, citing her suffragette grandmother. Sloan is a part of that fearless lineage and is pleased to know that her granddaughters are living in a different world from the one she stood up to as a young woman. She tells them, “It’s all right to poke your way into the man’s world; they’ll be far more welcoming today.”
A longtime friend says of her, “She’s a giant in my eyes, though you hug her and feel like you’re hugging a sparrow. Inside she’s eight feet tall.”