Maxine Savitz was born in 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her parents had both been born in the United States; her father’s family was from Ukraine, and her mother’s family was from Russia. The oldest of three children, Savitz grew up in Mount Washington and remembers spending lots of time playing outside. She notes that Baltimore was segregated racially and religiously, but Mount Washington was more integrated in terms of religion. The family discussed politics and literature around the dinner table, and there was an expectation that Savitz would go to college. She recalls enjoying math and reading from a young age. In high school, Savitz worked on Adlai E. Stevenson’s (1900-1965) campaign with her friend, Susan Schwartz. Unlike most of her friends who attended Forest Park High School, Savitz went to Western High School, an all-girls school. She remembers her aunt, Esther Lazarus, serving as a role model for her. When it came time to consider college, Savitz looked at the Seven Sisters and decided on Bryn Mawr College. She knew she wanted to major in math, the sciences, or medicine. As a freshman, she did well in the sciences, though she struggled in composition. Rather than get involved in many formal extracurricular activities, Savitz spent more time interacting with her classmates informally. The gender makeup of the faculty was relatively equally split, and she recalls fondly a husband and wife team in the chemistry department, Ernst and Frances Berliner. She decided on a chemistry major and worked for a Navy lab the summer of her junior year. When Frank Mallory came during Savitz’s senior year, he advised her to go to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for graduate school rather than Caltech since the latter had just recently started admitting female students.
Savitz packed up and moved to Boston, Massachusetts. She found an apartment to rent since MIT did not have dorms for women. She had been awarded a TAship, but Arthur C. Cope, the head of the chemistry department, did not want female graduate students TAing so he had them grade papers instead. Savitz discusses the graduate program at MIT, including taking comprehensives and courses. She decided to work in Fred Greene’s lab on hypochloride free radical mechanism. Students were guaranteed funding for four years, and Savitz finished in three years. She spent most of her time in the lab, but when she had free time, she played tennis and visited the theater. Shortly after graduating, she moved with her new husband, Alan Savitz, to California where she postdoc’d at the University of California Berkeley for a year. They moved back to the East Coast, and Alan was assigned to Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Savitz got a job in the US Army lab and started working on fuel cell research. There she learned how to become a manager under the guidance of Galen Frysinger. She worked at the lab for five years before taking a position at Federal City College, which she hoped would provide more flexibility when her children were young. After several years, Savitz then took a position at the National Science Foundation and started getting involved in the science policy world. In 1983, she moved to the Federal Energy office and went on loan to the Federal Energy Administration during the embargo time. She then moved to the Energy Research and Development Administration and later the Department of Energy after it was formed in 1977. She talks about interacting with the Environmental Protection Agency and other governmental agencies as well as the states. Savitz left the government in 1983 when she was reassigned to Salt Lake City, a position she chose not to take.
John L. Mason (1923-) invited her to work for the Garrett Corporation. She would work part-time from the office in DC, but would also visit the office in Los Angeles, California. At the time, Garrett was interested in fuel cells and ceramics. After two years, Savitz and her husband moved to California and settled in Westwood. When Garrett merged with AlliedSignal in 1987, she became head of the ceramics division. She discusses converting some open space in Torrance, California, to a lab and traveling around the country for work. In 1999, AlliedSignal took over Honeywell, including the name, and Savitz became manager of technology partnerships for two years before she retired. Throughout her career, she served on energy studies and government boards. In the late eighties/early nineties, she was appointed to the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB). In the mid-nineties, she was appointed to the National Science Board. She talks about developing reports and then being invited to join Barack Obama’s PCAST. In 2010, she was appointed co-vice chair, which Savitz notes meant more time on PCAST-related activities. She discusses PCAST’s meetings, including their first meeting with Obama when PCAST had a photo op in front of Abraham Lincoln’s picture. She details the meeting in March 2010 when she brought some samples for the president. Savitz also mentions reports of interest, including reports on hearing aids and big data technologies. She mentions PCAST’s visit to Camp David and reflects on PCAST’s focus, noting it did not do anything related to the Department of Defense. She discusses the public perception of some reports, mentions funding for PCAST, and reflects on issues PCAST is uniquely equipped to address. Savitz talks about the importance of diversity on PCAST and believes social science should be better represented. She also thinks younger people should be better represented. She reflects on whether PCAST should be statutory. Savitz concludes the interview by discussing her husband’s illness, her role as vice president of the National Academy of Engineering during that time, her service on OPCAST, and the role of women in science.
This interview was conducted remotely via Zoom.
David J. Caruso earned a BA in the history of science, medicine, and technology from Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and a PhD in science and technology studies from Cornell University in 2008. Caruso is the director of the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute, a former president of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region (2012-2019), and served as co-editor for the Oral History Review from 2018-2023. In addition to overseeing all oral history research at the Science History Institute, he also holds several, in-depth oral history training workshops each year, consults on various oral history projects, and is adjunct faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses on the history of military medicine and technology and on oral history.
Kenneth M. Evans is a scholar in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy. He received his BS in physics from the University of Virginia and his MS and PhD in applied physics from Rice University. His research focuses on the history and organization of the US federal science advisory and policymaking system, with an emphasis on the role of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
See our FAQ page to learn how to cite an oral history.