Miriam Gelfand, Ph.D. (1925-2022)

Born March 20,1925 in Harbin, China, Miriam grew up in Shanghai, China from 1930-1946 and attended French Schools. She graduated from St. John's University in Shanghai and worked as an analyst for Standard Oil in Shanghai upon graduation. Miriam immigrated to the United States in 1946 to attend the University of Washington for graduate school, where she studied Linguistics and met her future husband, Lawrence. They were married in Seattle on June 14, 1953.

A devoted teacher, translator and talented multilingual editor, Miriam retired from the University of Iowa after teaching Russian from 1962-1993. She also taught at the University of Wyoming from 1959-1962, University of Hawaii from 1957-58 and the University of Washington from 1949-1954. She had an unbelievable way of bonding with her students and maintained many long-term relationships with them. Miriam was also an Assistant Dean and academic adviser in the University of Iowa Liberal Arts Dean's Office and at the Athletic Department. She was instrumental in assisting former athletes return to college to obtain their degrees. One of her last projects was co-editing and overseeing the publication of her husband's final book, on world dictators, published in 2019. A member of Congregation Agudas Achim, Miriam was active in many non-profit organizations.

Messages from former colleagues and students:

"I, Irina Kostina, professor of the Russian language, first came to Iowa City in 1992 by the invitation of Ray Parrott, the Head of the Russian Department, to participate in a summer intensive school. A year later, Professor Parrott did the impossible – he invited me to work in the United States, at the University of Iowa and allowed me to bring my daughter here.  

It was quite a group of people working together at that time: Ray Parrott, Vadim Kreid, Harry Weber, Kit Wertz, Margaret Mills. Many of them were well known in their field: R. Parrott, V. Kreid, K. Wertz, H. Weber. Later professor Russell Valentino joined the department. 

We had a wonderful secretary – Nellie Weber. She together with others pushed this idea: "We speak only Russian here." Everyone adhered to this rule. The Department of Russian Language was one of the strongest in the United States. Miriam Gelfand was already retired, but that did not stop me from meeting her and becoming friends. 

Her wonderful husband, a historian, Larry Gelfand, Harry, and Nellie were close people for my family. Throughout the years of our friendship, she helped me many times: she was always ready to listen and give advice. I called her my second "American Mother", invited her to my lessons and she explained to my students the most difficult cases of Russian grammar. Miriam was amazing. I learned a lot from her. 

Knowing many languages, keeping them active, she surprised me with her great memory, that even sometimes was better than mine. I remember when she gave me a book to read, and when I came to visit her after a while- what she first asked me was: where is my book? (She was 92-93 years old at that time). I felt terrible that I forgot to bring her book back. 

She always was loved by her colleagues, friends, former students and of course of her three children. Her grandchild was a special to her. 

I will always remember Miriam and all with whom I worked with. 

Eternal memory to them, who have already passed away, and the wish to live long, happily, and a peaceful life to all my living colleagues."
– Irina Kostina, Associate Professor of Instruction, Coordinator, Russian Program


"My colleagues and I enjoyed more than three decades working with Miriam Gelfand at the University of Iowa. Together, we developed a program of Russian language instruction which, in 19 1991, was cited by the American Council of Education as “one of the three exemplary undergraduate program nationwide.” Miriam was an integral part of the faculty which achieved this recognition.As with the passing of any colleague and friend. There is a sense of loss and sadness of heart. Our condolences go out to Miriam’s remaining family and friends. She lived a remarkable life! Rest in peace."
– Ray Parrott and Alya Rakova


"When I came back from Moscow in 1989, I told [Miriam] that I, like the other four men I roomed with at Pushkin Institute, had lost quite a bit of weight. "Good," she said. "You needed to lose weight. Me it would have killed to lose that much."
– Eric Baysinger, MA student in the 1990s


"Miriam Gelfand was my Russian professor in the mid-1980s. Of course, she was a phenomenal instructor and brought so much more to the classroom than grammar and vocabulary. What still leaves a lasting impression on me, though, was how much she cared about her students, even when they weren't taking classes from her. She was instrumental in getting me into a study abroad program at the University of London, which was one of the most impactful programs I undertook at Iowa.  She was always there to support us. I am so thankful that she and her husband chose Iowa to make such a difference in so many people's lives."
 Jeff Guldner, CEO Pinnacle West Capital Corporation, BA Student in the 1980s


"My husband Anatoly and I arrived in Iowa City straight from the Soviet Union in the fall of 1990. We were immediately embraced by our newly found friends and mentors from the Russian Department of the University of Iowa. Professor Miriam Gelfand was one of the first Americans we met who undeniably and deeply influenced the rest of our life journey in this beautiful country. The news of her passing brought back the memories of the Russian tea parties around the only TV set receiving Russian television programs in the “Russian guesthouse”, her soft caring voice and genuine interest in our perspective on our experiences as young Russians living in the United States. She had a rare gift of listening to others without being judgmental and readily accepting different opinions. Miriam Gelfand is one of those highly educated and intelligent people who made us feel welcome and understood. More than thirty years after we first met Miriam, the world has become more divided and increasingly hostile than we ever remember; we honestly hope that the new generations will be looking back at her legacy to inspire and promote tolerance, fairness, and education."
Anna Stepanova, Attorney at Law, BA, Russian Language and Literature '92, and and Anatoly Duzhikhin


"Mrs Gelfand taught several semesters of Russian to me. I was certainly not her best student but she was the best teacher I ever had at the University of Iowa. One of her ways of ensuring I learned my lessons was to stop and pick me up as she drove by the bus stop where I was waiting for the Oakcrest bus. During the drive to her parking space east of Gilmore Hall, she drilled me on what would be that day’s lesson.

Later, when she served in the dean’s office in Schaeffer Hall, she worked with me to get my academic record straightened out and towards graduation. As both a teacher in the Russian Department and assistant dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Mrs. Gelfand worked hard to help students. Even after 35 years, her efforts towards me bring a warmth to my heart."
Charlie Kuester, student in the 1980s.


a picture of a family gathered on a couch
Miriam with Russian professors during their visit to the U.S.

Please see the Iowa Women's Archives for an oral history interview with Miriam in 2016. Read an excerpt from that interview here