Evelyn Vernick Fowler
SWE founding member and centenarian, an artist turned chemical engineer
Evelyn Vernick Fowler was a young chemical engineer when she participated in the historic meeting at Camp Green that formally launched the Society of Women Engineers. She was part of a cadre of women engineers and engineering students organizing in New York City in the late 1940s, initially unaware that women in Philadelphia and other East Coast cities were doing the same.
When women from these various groups gathered to form a unified national organization on May 27, 1950, Fowler was recorded as the 13th member. She developed the concept for SWE’s original logo and went on to take leadership roles at all levels of the organization beginning with the New York Section, and later, in the Connecticut Section, where she served in nearly every leadership role from 1954 throughout the 1970s and represented the section to the board of directors. On the Society level, she served on the nominating committee, chaired the awards committee, and from FY71-FY73 chaired the new industrial support committee, where she was credited with significantly increasing the number of corporate members.
Fowler graduated from the art school at Pratt Institute in 1942 at the height of World War II. During the war years, she worked as a draftsperson and took engineering classes offered on behalf of the United States government to fill the labor gap left by men going overseas to fight. While working at Hercules Electric and Manufacturing Co. in Brooklyn, she met electrical engineer and company president Alexander Fowler, who was exempt from military service due to his technical expertise. They were married in 1944.
With her husband’s strong encouragement, Fowler decided to enroll in an engineering program, applying first to Columbia University, which refused to admit her based on gender, and Brooklyn Polytechnic, which apologized that she could not be admitted because there were no women’s restrooms. Returning to her alma mater, she took up chemical engineering as a strong complement to Alexander’s electrical engineering. A reentry student in today’s terminology, she was expecting her second child while still in the program. She graduated with her B.S. in 1948.
The Fowlers formed their own company, the American Actuator Corp. Together, they developed electrical control systems to automate the process for bending sheet metal and held several patents for the machinery. Moving from New York to Stamford, Connecticut, in 1952, they operated the company from their home and had two more children.
While running the business from home may have alleviated some of the difficulties involved in managing work and family life, it also created a unique set of circumstances for the time. In an interview with SWE Magazine (see “SWE Stories: Tales from the Founders’ Families,” Conference 2020 issue), the adult Fowler children recalled their upbringing with pride. Son Joe described his parents as “very liberated” and who “never regarded women as being limited intellectually or otherwise.” Daughter Mary said, “My mother instilled in me the importance of having a profession and that women were as capable as men.”
In an oral history with SWE, Fowler reflected on her personal and professional lives, noting that her three sons became engineers, and her daughter became an architect.
In 2016, she was named one of that year’s Women Engineers You Should Know in the spring issue of SWE Magazine.
Fowler was related through marriage to another SWE founding member, Mickey Gerla, SWE’s fifth president. Their families and several other “founding families” met annually at the Fowler home for many decades, events fondly recalled by the founders’ adult children. In 2019, at age 99, Fowler hosted yet another such gathering.
She remained active in the Connecticut Section and her community, supporting a number of causes, including the League of Women Voters. She served on the board of the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County, volunteered with Meals on Wheels, and with various chamber music groups, to name a few. She revived her artwork, enjoyed The New York Times crossword puzzles, was an animal lover, and became a vegetarian in her 70s.
Fowler died at her home in Stamford on Feb. 11, 2022, and is survived by her four children: Joseph, Ivan, Daniel, and Mary Fowler (Detienne); six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. Services were held Feb 16. Donations in her memory can be made to the Society of Women Engineers or the Jewish Historical Society of Fairfield County.