By: LOU ANN MATOSSIAN
Historian Mary Allerton Kilbourne Matossian, a pioneer of Armenian, women’s and interdisciplinary studies, passed away on her 93rd birthday, July 9, 2023, in Portola Valley, California.
Her groundbreaking 1962 study, The Impact of Soviet Policies in Armenia, stood virtually alone for two decades as the main Anglophone source on Soviet social reforms in Armenian life. To this day, her chapters about Armenian women remain the historiographical point of reference for contemporary scholars.
In popular culture, Mary Matossian was known for her 1982 interpretation of the Salem witch trials; her research was reported widely and featured in a New York Times editorial. Using historical climate data, she defended the theory (originally proposed by Linnda Caporael) that ergot-infected rye bread caused symptoms of mold poisoning, which the colonists attributed to witchcraft. The Salem case was included in Poisons of the Past (1989), a synthesis of public health and social history that drew international attention.
A native of Los Angeles, California, Mary was born July 9, 1930, to Norman J. Kilbourne, MD, a Yale honor graduate, and the former Katharine R. Hillix, a YWCA secretary. Named for her Pilgrim ancestor Mary Allerton (1616–1699), the young Mary Kilbourne was deeply influenced by her family’s Anglo-American Protestant traditions, which included spiritual conviction, social reform, communion with nature, women’s education, and the worldwide missionary movement. Her great-aunt, medical missionary and botanist Fannie Andrews Shepard, MD, served in Aintab, Ottoman Turkey, from 1882 to 1919.
At age seventeen, Mary received a scholarship to Stanford University, from which she graduated in 1951 magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. The following year, as a Rotary Fellow, she attended the American University of Beirut (Lebanon), receiving her MA in Near Eastern History, then returned to Stanford, where she completed her PhD in History in 1955.
On July 9, 1954, Mary married Garo S. Matossian (1921–2004), an Armenian physician born in Aintab, whom she had met in Beirut. Garo’s parents, Setrak and Eliza (Ayvazian), were both educators, Setrak having taught at the American missionary-led Central Turkey College in Aintab and later at Aleppo College in Syria.
Mary and Garo moved to Boston in the fall of 1956, where Garo received advanced medical training at the Lahey Clinic. While affiliated with the Russian Research Center at Harvard, Mary revised her dissertation on Soviet Armenia for publication. She taught History at the University of Maryland for 31 years.
Mary Matossian was the author of The Impact of Soviet Policies in Armenia (Brill, 1962), Armenian Village Life Before 1914 (with Susie Hoogasian Villa, Wayne State University Press, 1982); Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History (Yale University Press, 1989); Shaping World History: Breakthroughs in Ecology, Technology, Science, and Politics (M.E. Sharpe, 1997); Öncesi Ermeni Köy Hayatı (Turkish edition of Armenian Village Life Before 1914, Aras Yayıncılık, 2006), and Plants, Stars, and the Origins of Religion: With a Decipherment of the Phaistos Disk (Mill City Press, 2014).
Her articles and essays of note include “Two Marxist Approaches to Nationalism” (1957), “Soviet Diary, October 1957” (1958), “The Armenians” (1967), “Ideologies of Delayed Industrialization: Some Tensions and Ambiguities” (1962), “In the Beginning, God was a Woman” (1973), “Birds, Bees, and Barley: Pagan Origins of Armenian Spring Rituals” (1979), and a reflection on her early work, “The Transformation of Armenian Society Under Stalin” (1980).
Mary Matossian is survived by her children Lou Ann, Michele, Viken (Mary), and Mark (Renée) Matossian and nine grandchildren. A requiem service (hokehankisd) will be held at St. John Armenian Church, Southfield, Michigan, on August 20. In lieu of flowers, memorial gifts are suggested to the Sierra Club, Stanford University, or the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.