Catherine Anselm "Kate" Gleason (November 25, 1865 - January 9, 1933) was an American engineer and businesswoman known both for being an accomplished woman in the predominantly male field of engineering and for her philanthropy.
Early life and Gleason Works:
Catherine Anselm Gleason was born the first of four children of William and Ellen McDermott Gleason of Rochester, New York, émigrés from Ireland. Her father was the owner of a machine tool company, later named Gleason Works, which later became (and still is) one of the most important makers of gear-cutting machine tools in the world. When she was 11, her stepbrother Tom died of typhoid fever, causing hardship at her father's company because Tom had been an important helper. At the age of 12 she began working for her father to fill the void left by Tom's death. In 1884, she was the first woman to be admitted to study engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, although she was unable to complete her studies at Cornell due to her required presence in the factory. She continued her studies upon returning to Rochester at the Mechanics Institute, later renamed Rochester Institute of Technology. She was actively involved as the treasurer as well as saleswoman for Gleason Works. In 1893, she toured Europe to expand the company's business, one of the first times an American manufacturer tried to globalize their business. Today, international sales make up almost 3/4 of the company's business.
Fred H. Colvin described Kate Gleason in his memoirs as "a kind of Madame Curie of machine tools ... Kate spent her youth learning her father's business from the ground up, both in the shop and in the field, so that when she branched out for herself about 1895 as a saleswoman for her father's gear-cutting machines, she knew as much as any man in the business."
Ellen Gleason was a friend of fellow Rochesterian Susan B. Anthony, and Kate Gleason later cited Anthony as a source of advice. Gleason undertook several efforts supporting Women's Suffrage after Anthony's death.
Life after leaving the Gleason Works:
Due to conflicts with her family she left Gleason Works in 1913 and found work at the Ingle Machining Company. In 1914, she was the first woman elected to full membership in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and represented the society at the World Power Conference in Germany. In 1918, she was appointed the president of First National Bank of East Rochester while the previous President was enlisted in World War I. She used this position to further her humanitarian efforts in Rochester, starting eight companies, including a construction company that built houses for the middle class. Later, she left Rochester for business opportunities in South Carolina and California, eventually setting in France, where she helped a town's recovery after World War I.
Gleason viewed marriage as a hindrance to her business life, and she never married nor had children.
Death and legacy:
She died January 9, 1933 of pneumonia and is interred in Riverside Cemetery in Rochester. She left much of her $1.4 million estate to institutions in the Rochester area, including libraries, parks, and the Rochester Institute of Technology. The Kate Gleason College of Engineering at RIT is named in her honor, and her bust stands proudly in the hallway. Kate Gleason Hall is an RIT residence hall. Gleason Works is still in operation today and retains a strong connection with RIT. In 2010, RIT press published a collection of Gleason's letters.
Text from this biography licensed under creative commons license