Julia Brown, born Julia Saparoff in Czarist Russia, often sat on Vladimir Lenin’s lap as a young girl when he visited her family. Later, the Russian Revolution pushed her family to emigrate to the United States where she would embark on a six-decade career as a sociologist.
During the final years of Nicholas II’s reign, Brown’s father, a Bolshevik activist, was friends with the future Russian leader, However, that friendship did not keep the Saparoff family from fleeing their homeland in 1919, shortly after the fall of the House of Romanov, as the nation fell into political instability.
Brown attended Radcliffe College with the intent of becoming a chemist, but her chemistry professor’s demeanor towards female students lessened her enthusiasm.
During this time, she studied under Pitirim Sorokin, with whom she bonded over a shared Russian heritage. Sorokin had served as secretary to Alexander Kerensky, leader of the moderate-socialist Trudoviks faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Kerensky took part in the transitional government in 1917, but Lenin later forced him into exile in Paris. Sorokin fled to the United States.
Brown also took courses with other Radcliffe scholars—such as Corrado Gini, inventor of the Gini Coefficient Index—who inspired Brown to study sociology. However, Radcliffe didn’t offer undergraduate classes in sociology at the time so Brown had to obtain reading materials from Harvard graduate student tutors. After one of her tutors asked her to translate a Russian research book on social class, she applied the theories from the book to write her own thesis on the U.S. labor movement.
Brown’s parents did not know what to make of her choice of major. “When I asked my mother about sociology, she thought it had something to do with delivering food baskets to the poor, and my father said sociology had something to do with socialism,” she recalled.
After Radcliffe, the University of Wisconsin-Madison awarded Brown a scholarship for a master’s program—tuition, fees, and a $25 per month stipend. Brown first became a member of the American Sociological Association in 1936 while at Wisconsin. She was 20 years old.
In 1942, Brown enrolled in a PhD program at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations that offered an innovative interdisciplinary research and learning experience. Studying at the doctorate level also increased her income. “I got a scholarship at Yale for $35 per month and with that I could almost eat,” she says.
Like many of her PhD classmates, Brown longed to teach, but as a woman she was advised to consider other avenues. “Even Margaret Mead could not get a teaching position,” she says.
It was at Yale where Brown met her future husband, Judson, an academic psychologist who was known for his pioneering work in the field of experimental psychology. After the outbreak of World War II, Judson joined the U.S. Army Air Corp. He was stationed in San Antonio, where Julia found work teaching an anthropology course. When Judson finished his military service, he returned to teaching and was offered a faculty position at the University of Iowa, where he taught from the late 1940s through 1950s.
During the early 1960s, the couple relocated to Florida where Julia taught an introductory sociology course and pursued work in psychological research. Their house in Florida was next to a lake filled with alligators. Her kids had a habit of snagging a few young ones. “One time I found five baby alligators in the bathtub,” she says.
The Browns returned to Portland in 1972 and Julia took a research position in the Nursing Department at the Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) where she was responsible for developing medical sociology courses focusing on mental health and the impact of poverty on public health. Brown retired from teaching in 1989 at OHSU, but she continued to manage research projects until the age of 75.
During her retirement, she has enjoyed leisure time with family members in Portland and writing poetry. She remains a member of ASA after 80 years. Thank you, Julia Brown, for your contributions to our discipline.