Resistance, Activism, and Science: The Pioneering Life of Ruth Bleier

Maia Truesdale-Scott, Museum Generalist | March 19, 2020 |
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Histology slide with multiple brain sections of a female guinea pig from the research slides associated with Ruth Bleier's publication, The Hypothalamus of the Guinea Pig: A Cytoarchitectonic Atlas. (NMHM 80-15)

In celebration of Women's History and Brain Awareness Month, it's fitting to feature Ruth H. Bleier and her roles as a neuroscientist, mother, musician, athlete, feminist, and civil rights advocate. Ruth Bleier's research is represented in a sub-collection bearing her name within the larger University of Wisconsin-Welker Collection from the Neuroanatomical Collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine. A collection of comparative material, the University of Wisconsin-Welker Collection examines brain anatomy, behavioral studies, and evolution of animals. Welker's research and the work of his contemporaries, including Bleier and other fellow professors at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, have been influential in the field of neuroanatomy, furthering neuroscientific research.

Ruth Bleier

Photograph of Ruth Bleier (image courtesy of Carol Dizack).

As a professor of neurophysiology, a research staff member of the Waisman Center on Mental Retardation, and an affiliate scientist at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Center, Bleier established herself as an authority on brain anatomy, especially on the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is an extremely important structure of the brain as it regulates vital functions, including body temperature, blood pressure, hormone production, sleep cycle, and weight control. Maintaining these functions, collectively known as homeostasis, is critical for readiness and efficiency.

Her publications, The Hypothalamus of the Cat: A Cytoarchitectonic Atlas in the Horsley-Clarke Coordinate System (1961), The Hypothalamus of the Guinea Pig: A Cytoarchitectonic Atlas (1983), and The Hypothalamus of the Rhesus Monkey: A Cytoarchitectonic Atlas (1984) undoubtedly influenced the next generation of neuroscientists and neurophysiology as a whole. Her extensive research and knowledge of the hypothalamus led to greater investigation of its role in the body's defense against brain-attacking pathogens.

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Bleier is also known for addressing gender bias in scientific models and methodology. Many see her as a force that brought feminist theory to the natural sciences. Her publications, Science and Gender: A Critique of Biology and Its Theories on Women (1984) and the anthology Feminist Approaches to Science (1986), are still used in gender study courses today.

Challenging bias was nothing new for Ruth Bleier; it was one of her passions. A graduate of Goucher College in 1945 and The Women's Medical College in Pennsylvania in 1949, Bleier worked as a physician in a Baltimore clinic providing services to the inner city community in the 1950s. During this time, she chaired the Maryland Committee for Peace, an organization that advocated for civil rights and the end of the Korean War. Her advocacy gained the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee, an organization charged with identifying communist threats to the United States. Her defiance of McCarthy led to her inclusion on his infamous "blacklist" and resulted in the loss of her medical license.

Ruth Bleier and Wally Welker

Ruth Bleier (right) and Wally Welker (left) work together to make brain molds. (Image courtesy of Carol Dizack)

Bleier's drive eventually led her to enroll at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1957 where she studied neurophysiology under Jerzy Rose, a leader in neuroscientific discovery. In the late 1960s, Bleier joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin's Department of Neurophysiology and began her 20-year relationship with the Wisconsin Regional Primate Center. While at the University of Wisconsin, she instituted tangible change to the academic and social spheres of the university. She successfully advocated for equal pay among faculty, became a founding member of the Association of Faculty Women, helped form a science-based women's studies course, persuaded the university to invest in more women and minority faculty members, and was influential in the formation of the Department of Gender and Women's Studies, which she chaired from 1982-1986.

Guinea Pig Hypothalamus

Histology slide of the frontal section of the brain, male guinea pig, from the research slides associated with Ruth Bleier's publication, The Hypothalamus of the Guinea Pig: A Cytoarchitectonic Atlas. (NMHM 80-6)

Bleier's expertise in brain anatomy, and specifically the function of the hypothalamus, continues to further our understanding of the brain and support neuroanatomical research. Ruth Bleier was a visionary that strove to foster academic excellence and social change. Her influence is wide ranging and remains relevant among a range of communities.


Brugge, John F., et al. "On the Death of Professor Ruth Bleier." NWSA Journal 1, no. 1 (1988): 3-6.

University of Massachusetts Amherst, Special Collections and University Archives. "Maryland Committee for Peace press release, January 30, 1951." W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312).

U.S. National Library of Medicine. "Dr. Ruth Harriet Bleier." Changing the Face of Medicine. Last modified June 3, 2015.

Relevant Links:

Rise, Serve, Lead! America's Women Physicians

Cytoarchitectonic Sexual Dimorphisms of the Medial Preoptic and Anterior Hypothalamic Areas in Guinea Pig, Rat, Hamster, and Mouse

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