Marie Hochmuth Nichols was born in 1908 in Dunbar, Pennsylvania. She earned her B.A. and M.A. from the University of Pittsburgh in 1931 and 1936, respectively. After teaching for a short time at Mt. Mercy College, she began a memorable scholarly career at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1939. She rounded up her formal education with a Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1945.
When Karl Wallace came to the University of Illinois to become the inaugural dean of the recently created Department of Speech in 1947, he joined Nichols and Richard Murphy. The three would spend the next twenty years raising the bar for rhetorical studies with Nichols focusing on American public address. Their efforts culminated in “The Illinois Tradition,” which outlined the following principles:
that rhetoric in its most useful sense embraces the whole rationale of influential discourse; that rhetoric is an essential dimension of human social action; and that the study of rhetorical theory, practice, and criticism has an important place in liberal education (Blakenship, 1976, p. viii).
Nichols rebranded the discipline as necessary for the preservation of freedom by developing strategies for rhetorical criticism and analysis which centered on humanism, supplemented the historical record, and ultimately worked for the benefit of society. She believed that carefully analyzing the language used in America’s most renowned speeches will enhance individuals’ ability to make rational judgements and hold their legislators accountable for abuses of language.
She became the first woman to be elected by vote of the full membership to the presidency of the National Communication Association in 1969, where she demonstrated courage in struggling against the big problems of the day. She developed communication programing to grapple with civil rights issues, civil disorders, and questions concerning the underprivileged. Her time at the helm of the National Communication Association earned her the “Distinguished Service Award,” the organization’s highest honor in 1976. There is also a Marie Hochmuth Nichols Award that the National Communication Association gives each year.
Besides providing guiding leadership, Nichols served in roles as editor and devoted teacher. She became the first woman to be appointed as an editor of the Quarterly Journal of Speech in 1963. Over her 37 year tenure, generations of graduate students benefited from transformative learning experiences under Nichols. Nichols should be remembered as a scholar and advocate of rhetorical studies, a pioneer for women, and a champion for Illinois.
– Lincoln Hall. The current home of the Department of Communication which continues the Illinois Tradition.
At the Student Culture and Life Archives, Nichols’s Records and Manuscripts can be found using Record Series 15/23/25
For the National Communication Association’s Retrospective on Nichols click here
The following titles were written by Nichols or about her and can be found in the University of Illinois Library System:
Blakenship, J., and Hermann G. S. (1976). Rhetoric and Communication: Studies in the University of Illinois Tradition. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Nichols, M. (1963). Rhetoric and Criticism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Blakenship, J. (2004). Marie Hochmuth Nichols, President of the National Communication Association, 1969. Review of Communication, 4(½), 75-85. (Image).