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Bertha Sheppard Adkins


photo Bertha Sheppard Adkins

Bertha Sheppard Adkins was an educator, political activist, public servant, and community leader.

Adkins was born in Salisbury, Maryland, to Frederick and Edna Sheppard Adkins on August 24, 1906. She graduated from the Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. Adkins received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Wellesley College and a Master of Arts degree from Columbia University. Adkins also received honorary degrees from Hood College, Salisbury State College (now Salisbury University), Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College), Wheaton College, and Wilson College.

Adkins began her career as Dean of Women at Western Maryland College (1934-42) and later served as Dean of Residence at Bradford Junior College (1942-46) in Massachusetts. She also served as headmistress of the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Virginia, from 1961 until she retired in 1967.

After returning to Salisbury in 1946, Adkins began her political career by volunteering her service to the local Republican Party and assisting the election of Edward T. Miller to Congress from Maryland’s First District. Later, she was selected to become the state’s national committeewoman and, in 1948, Guy G. Gaberielson, chairman of the National Republican Party Committee, appointed Adkins as the executive director of the Women’s Division of the Committee in recognition of her leadership abilities. In 1952, she became Assistant Chairman of the National Committee.

Around 1956, she instituted a series of "Breakfasts with the President," where women in the Republican party could meet and talk with the President about their concerns and values. These talks were one of the inspirations for the National Federation of Republican Women annual conferences.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed Adkins the Under Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) in 1958. She was the first woman to hold this position. As Under Secretary, Adkins directed the organization of the White House Conference on Children and Youth and the first White House Conference on Aging in 1961. Ten years later, at the request of the Nixon administration, she organized the second White House Conference on Aging. During this time, she hired Winifred G. Hermes, another advocate for women’s rights and health, as her Special Assistant.

Adkins became knowledgeable about the problems and programs relating to the elderly. She became a leading authority in the field and was appointed Executive Vice Chair of the Older Americans Advisory Committee. She was later appointed chairman of the Federal Council on Aging by President Gerald Ford in 1974 and served until her retirement in 1978. As chair, she organized public hearings on national policy concerns for older women. Her work in this area set the tone for the work of the Council.

Adkins died at age 76 from stomach cancer at Memorial Hospital in Easton, Maryland, on January 14, 1983. She enjoyed playing golf and preparing Maryland crab dishes. Adkins always identified herself as a Marylander. She brought credit to her state in all that she accomplished.

Biography courtesy of the Maryland Commission for Women, 1989; updated 2023.

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