Thursday, June 07, 2012


Sally Chapman, a year or so ago, left a comment on something I'd posted on Facebook. A little while later I got a message from a friend, a fellow Barnard alum, saying something along the lines of, "Oh my god, you're friends with Professor Chapman? I saw her name on your post and had heart palpitations. She was the scariest professor I ever had!"

This made me laugh at the time because Sally never struck me as particularly scary. She was charming, hilarious, and sure, sometimes scathing and always sharp as a dagger, but scary seemed a stretch. (Of course, my lack of terror may have been a direct result of my lack of enrolling in any of her courses during my years at Barnard.)

We met Sally through my father, the two of them becoming good friends during their shared years at Barnard despite coming from entirely different disciplines (she going into chemistry in a time when women were even more sorely outnumbered in the hard sciences than they are now; he plowing through pre-WWII German economic history with a passion that I never quite understood). And as was the way with so many of my father's friends, he loved her, and so we came to love her too.

The last time I saw Sally was in December of 2010. I had just begun attempting to sell some of my knitting and she had purchased one of my first pieces. We messaged back and forth and I offered to drop it off at her office over in Altschul. Oh I was so excited! (And so thankful for this encouragement, and for an odd sense of in some small way still being looked after by my quirky and lovely Barnard professors.)

The following summer she was diagnosed with kidney cancer.  It's a decidedly brutal diagnosis to get, terrifying in its harsh statistics of survival. It's also a disease predominantly diagnosed in men, and she joked even then about how after a lifetime of being a woman in a man's world professionally, she was still stuck with being a woman in a man's world. She decided to write through the process of treatment, the process of coming to terms with an incurable disease, and the process of how to share this terrifying experience with the world around her, in an amazing blog called, simply, a cancer journey.

She fought as long as it was possible to fight, and chronicled the battle along the way with such down-to-earth and quick-witted clarity that it seems almost shocking. And when it was no longer possible to fight, when the doctors had done all they could do, she carried on and wrote through that too.

I did not know her well, but my heart breaks for her mother, her siblings, her students and colleagues, her friends and relatives.

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