First female Wittenberg science prof leaves $2.3M to university

The first female science professor at Wittenberg University has left $2.3 million from her estate to the school, which will be used to fund summer internships for biology students.

Elizabeth “Betty” Powelson died in May 2015 at the age of 91. Her gift will go to supporting the biology department, fund the Elizabeth Powelson Endowed Chair in Biology and to the Powelson-Hopper Endowed Fund for Student Opportunities in Biology.

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Wittenberg is a major local employer with a total of more than 250 employees and has an estimated $70 million economic impact on the Springfield community. The current student enrollment at Wittenberg is more than 1,870 for the spring semester.

The donation will allow the department to fund research projects for students in the summer, as well as provide new lab equipment and more opportunities to attend workshops and seminars to present those projects, said Professor Jim Welch, the chair of Wittenberg’s biology department. He thanked Powelson and pledged to use the gift wisely, he said.

About 140 Wittenberg students major in biology and another 10 have a biology minor.

“This incredible gift to the university will transform the lives of our current and future biology students so that they can transform their world and their community,” Welch said.

READ MORE: Donor leaves $2.6M gift to Springfield university

Students will be able to complete paid research projects over the summer without having to get a job, he said.

“The research project will be their job, so they can save money for the next academic year and contribute to their professional development all at the same time,” Welch said.

Without paid fellowships, only the students who can afford not to work can perform research projects, he said.

“This is an incredibly valuable thing for them,” Welch said.

Powelson was one of only a handful of women in the country teaching in science when she joined Wittenberg’s faculty in 1957 as a biology professor. She taught at the Springfield university for 44 years and was the 14th winner of the university’s Medal of Honor.

“She was an excellent teacher and a life-changing mentor, which we see reflected even now in her devoted former students,” Welch said.

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In 1966, Powelson helped construct a new science building at Wittenberg, which included labs used by professors to conduct research projects with their students.

“This is the legacy Betty has left us,” Welch said.

In 2004, three years after her retirement, an endowed chair — a faculty position which is paid for through a privately funded endowment — was created in her name, which has generated more than $350,000 in donations from Powelson’s students and friends.

Former Wittenberg Biology Chair Tim Lewis and his wife, Ruth, also a former administrator in the department, serve as the trustees of Powelson’s estate. Lewis worked with Powelson and said she had a passion for her students.

“In every way, it’s meant to help students,” Lewis said. “It’s the kind of gift that can changes lives. Long after people forget who Betty Powelson was, they’ll still have their lives changed by her.”

READ MORE: Wittenberg sets sights on growth with new president

Last fall, a former student donated $2.6 million from her estate to Wittenberg, the largest gift ever for the music program at the school.

Lois Hagelberger Huebner, who died at the age of 107, donated that money to be used for scholarships for music students.

Wittenberg University wouldn’t continue to thrive without support from private donors, Interim President Dick Helton said.

“We’ve been very, very grateful over the years for the support and contribution we’ve received,” he said. “It’s important to our students, faculty and staff.”


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