Whitney Hale


College: Libraries

Sesquicentennial Stories: Mary E. Sweeny - A Leader at 'Home' and Abroad

Published: Jul 30, 2013

LEXINGTON, Ky. (July 30, 2013) — In celebration of the University of Kentucky's upcoming sesquicentennial in 2015, the 62nd of 150 weekly installments remembers the accomplishments of home economics and family relations expert Dean Mary E. Sweeny.


Mary E. Sweeny was an internationally known authority on home economics and family relations. Sweeny was connected with UK's Department of Home Economics (now the School of Human Environmental Sciences) since she earned her postgraduate degree from Columbia University in 1912. Upon arriving at the university, Sweeny contributed greatly to the rapid growth of home economics and her untiring efforts were given credit for the establishment of the Department of Home Economics to the eventual College of Home Economics. 


Before she became dean of the college, Sweeny was a specialist in home economics extension for five years — this was done in cooperation with the United States Department of Agriculture and the College of Agriculture (now College of Agriculture, Food and Environment) at UK. Sweeny contributed greatly to the betterment of general living conditions in rural areas, to the introduction of hot school lunches in rural schools, and to the addition of courses in cooking and sewing in elementary and high schools in the state of Kentucky. 


Sweeny was head of the Department of Home Economics from 1913-1916, dean of the college from 1916-1917, and again head through 1920. At that point she left to become director of the Merrill-Palmer School in Detroit, Mich., where she worked for the next 25 years. Sweeny spent most of her life studying, teaching and writing about nutrition and child growth.


During World War I, Mary and her sister, Sunshine Sweeny, went overseas as canteen workers with the American Army in France and the Army of Occupation in Germany.


In 1946, Sweeny went to India where she was a visiting lecturer and adviser to all women's groups in bettering child conditions. The trip was arranged by Agricultural Missions Inc. and Sweeny was invited by the All India Women’s Conference. She had previously spent three months in India during 1939, where she became interested in Indian customs, government and opportunities. Sweeny spent a total of 15 months in the country and did extensive research. After her work in India, she went to China where she spent five months with schools that provided training for child welfare workers or housed home economics departments.


In 1958, the UK Home Management House was named for Mary Sweeny. The Mary E. Sweeny house at 644 Maxwelton Court (now the Jessie Harris Psychology Services Center) was opened for senior students in the home economics program. Students lived in each of the houses for a period of six weeks, and then rotated. Gas or electric appliances were used in the kitchens to enable them to become acquainted with the different types of cooking facilities. The houses were meant to represent what was typically being done in houses of the day. 


Sweeny was a past president of the American Home Economics Association (now the American Association of Family and Consumer Sciences) and an honorary vice president of the Biochemistry Society. A native of Fayette County, she was the daughter of Dr. W. O. Sweeny and Margaret Prewitt Sweeny. Mary Sweeny passed away in 1968.


This story on UK's history is presented by UK Special Collections. Special Collections is home to UK Libraries' collection of rare books, Kentuckiana, the Archives, the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, the King Library Press and the Wendell H. Ford Public Policy Research Center. The mission of Special Collections is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky.



MEDIA CONTACT: Whitney Hale, 859-257-8716whitney.hale@uky.edu

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