Mollie S. Smart

died October 22, 2012

Mollie Stevens Smart, professor emerita of the University of Rhode Island, died at home in Ridgefield, Washington, on October 22, 2012, at age 96. An author, teacher, and mentor, Mollie won Fulbright grants to conduct research in New Delhi, India and Palmerston North, New Zealand, and was an invited lecturer in the U.S., India, New Zealand, Canada, and China. She wrote 12 books, most co-authored with her husband of more than 50 years, Russell C. Smart, and one co-authored with her youngest daughter, Laura. Many of Mollie's books were published in multiple editions and included trade books written for parents and textbooks for college and high school students. The books placed child development in the context of family and community systems, which was unusual in the 1940s when Freudian theory had a strong grip on the popular view of child development.

Mollie and Rus's best-selling college textbook, Children: Development and Relationships (1967, 1973, 1977, 1982), was based on the theories of Erik Erikson and Jean Piaget, and the 1982 edition was framed also by Bronfenbrenner's (1979) theory of human ecology. As did all of their writing on child development, Children emphasized the interaction of cognitive development, physical development, social relationships, and cultural context. Written in concise and clear language understandable to undergraduate students, the book sold well in Canada, New Zealand, and India, as well as in the U.S.

Born on April 11, 1916, in Chatham, Ontario to Mildred and Starr Stevens, Mollie was blessed to have a father who was completely satisfied with having two daughters and no sons. During summers when Mollie was in high school, she worked as a lifeguard and taught swimming and softball in a playground in her hometown, and when in college, she competed in intra-and extramural swimming. At the time, athletic competition was normative for girls and women in Canada, but not in the U.S. After graduating from Grade 13 at the age of 16, Mollie went to the University of Toronto. Following her first year at Toronto, Mollie was chosen to supervise all of the counselors (male and female) at three playgrounds in Chatham.

Mollie graduated from the honors program at Toronto with a bachelor's degree in psychology in 1936 at age 20. She studied and worked as a staff member at the Merrill-Palmer Institute in Detroit, earning a master's degree in child development from the University of Michigan in 1941. She earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology at the University of Delhi in 1969.

The Merrill-Palmer Institute was one of six child development institutions which had been funded by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, a fund established by Mrs. Rockefeller's estate for the purpose of founding and strengthening centers for studying and teaching child development. The executive director of the Rockefeller fund was Lawrence K. Frank, the originator and catalyst of the interdisciplinary approach to understanding children that Mollie Smart used so successfully in all of her writing, teaching, and scholarship.

At Merrill-Palmer Institute, Mollie Stevens met Russell (Rus) Smart, whom she married in 1939. Rus joined the Institute staff as a camp counselor in 1937 while he was completing his Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in the department of child welfare (now child development). Lecturers at Merrill-Palmer included psychologist Kurt Lewin and anthropologist Margaret Mead, among others. Students came from many foreign countries, including India, inspiring in the Smarts a desire to travel the world.

Mollie's first book, Understanding your baby and co-authored with Lois Schulz, was published in 1941. Mollie and Rus's first book, It's a wise parent, was published in 1944, with a second edition in 1950. In 1945, Rus joined the faculty in child development and family relations at Cornell University. While at Cornell (1945-1953) Mollie taught part time, wrote books and educational material for Home Economics Extension, and a regular column for Parents' Magazine. Their high school textbook, Living and learning with children (1949, 1956, 1961) taught child development and family relationships by interweaving stories of a neighborhood with text that explained the theory behind the vignettes. Mollie's trade book, Babe in a house was published in 1950. In 1953, Mollie and Rus authored a college textbook, An introduction to family relationships. That year, Rus joined the faculty in child development and family relations at the University of Rhode Island (URI). Mollie continued teaching part time and writing textbooks, magazine columns and educational materials for the Home Economics Extension at URI. Another high school book was Living in families (1958, 1965).

Mollie and Rus's remarkable marriage was at least a generation ahead of its time, as they were egalitarian partners at home and at work. Rus cooked breakfast for the family every morning for more than 50 years, and decorated the house, making curtains and furniture and choosing the décor. He also changed diapers and shared the child-rearing. At various points in her career, Rus (unasked) provided support to Mollie so that she could complete important projects, such as her master's degree and doctorate. Work-family boundaries were permeable, with graduate students and colleagues (and later, their daughters' friends) often visiting the Smarts for afternoon tea or dinner. Whether or not students and colleagues were present, dinner table conversations often included discussions of how theory and research tied into whatever else was being discussed.

Mollie and Rus shared many professional speaking engagements and summer courses taught from coast to coast in the U.S. In those years, NCFR was usually in the summer, and their summer travels were planned to include attending the conference, with their daughters in tow. Mollie and Rus wrote and gave their speeches and classes together, in a round-robin fashion, with each interrupting and supplementing the other. Mollie and Rus jointly led parent education classes in various communities within Rhode Island. They worked as a team of consultants when Head Start was being set up in the mid 1960s, flying to many parts of the U.S. during that time. Their equal-partner approach was natural to both of them. Although Mollie retired in 1975 when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she continued writing textbooks, including Families: Developing Relationships which was co-authored with youngest daughter, Laura. Rus proudly typed the manuscript (in the days before computers) and created the indices.

Mollie and Rus continued to travel professionally until Rus became ill in 1990. They moved from Rhode Island to San Diego to live with their middle daughter, Ellen, in 1993. Rus died in 1996. In 2003, Mollie and Ellen moved to Ridgefield, Washington. Mollie applied her great knowledge of children and families to advise a community-based organization which serves the needs of new babies born into destitute families (, writing parent-education pamphlets and advising on applications for grants.

Mollie is survived by her three daughters, who in the family tradition all hold Ph.D.s. Susan Smith, of Harrisonburg, VA, holds a Ph.D. in psychology and is a former college professor and administrator. Ellen Smart, of Ridgefield, WA, holds a Ph.D. in the Art and Archaeology of South Asia and is a retired museum curator of South Asian and Asian art. Laura Smart, of DeKalb, IL, holds a Ph.D. in Family Science and is professor emerita of family science at Northern Illinois University, where she also served as department chair and acting associate dean. Mollie is survived also by grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and by many former students and colleagues not only in the U.S., but in Canada, India and New Zealand, as well as countless unknown students who were influenced by reading her textbooks.


Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Schulz, L. & Smart, M. S. (1941). Understanding your baby. New York: Sun Dial Press.

Smart, L.S. & Smart, M. S. (1980). Families: Developing relationships. (2nd ed.) New York: Macmillan.

Smart, M. S. (1950). Babe in a house. New York: Scribner's.

Smart, M.S. & Smart, L. S. (1976). Families: Developing relationships. New York: Macmillan.

Smart, M.S. & Smart, R. C. (1944, 1950). It's a wise parent. New York: Scribner's.

Smart, M.S. & Smart, R. C. (1949, 1956, 1961). Living and learning with children. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Smart, M.S. & Smart, R. C. (1958, 1965). Living in families. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.

Smart, M.S. & Smart, R. C. (1953). An introduction to family relationships. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.

Smart, M. S. & Smart, R. C. (1967, 1972, 1977, 1982). Children: Development and relationships. New York: Macmillan.

If you wish to honor Mollie with a charitable contribution, please send it to Babies In Need, POB 65825, Vancouver, WA 98665.