From the archives- The legacy of Jane O’Neil Wallis ’33

Photo Courtesy of Maryellen stohlman-vanderveen ’19 | Jane O’Neil Wallis ’33 was one of the first members of the CIA and died while in the agency’s service.


Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen ‘19
Staff Writer

Among the many alumnae stories to be found in the Smith College Archives, there are some that are still unfolding.

One such story is that of Jane O’Neil Wallis ’33.  Wallis—who graduated with a degree in French from Smith and whose married name was Burrell—went on to a career in the U.S intelligence services, and died in a plane crash in 1948. Her family says she was on an official mission at the time. The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency says it does not have documentation to confirm that.

Wallis, who was born in Dubuque, Iowa, was one of the first members of the CIA. She joined after serving as an officer in three CIA predecessor agencies: the Office of Strategic Services, the Strategic Services Unit and the Central Intelligence Group.

“At a time when most women in U.S intelligence were clerk typists, Jane Wallis Burrell was a CIA counterintelligence (CI) officer,” says a 2016 article about her on the CIA’s website.

Sadly, Wallis also became the first CIA officer to die while in the agency’s service, when her plane crashed in January 1948 just before landing in Paris on a return flight from Brussels.  An investigation cited bad weather, pilot error and a faculty altimeter as causes of the crash. That same year, Wallis’ family established a scholarship at Smith in her honor.

Service in a Wartime Era

The CIA only recently acknowledged that Wallis died while in service, says her niece, Andrea Wallis Aven of Edmond, Okla., who has been researching her aunt’s history. For the CIA to have posted an article about her on its website is “truly extraordinary,” Aven says.

“The significance of my aunt’s service as an intelligence officer in a male-centric wartime era can’t be overstated,” Aven says. “I had the privilege of working with the CIA on the story about her and I am pleased that it acknowledges her contributions.”

Being on an operational mission at the time of her death would make Wallis eligible for a star on the CIA’s Memorial Wall—an honor reserved for officers who die under special circumstances.  A letter in the Smith College Archives that Wallis’ father, James Harold Wallis, wrote to college President Herbert Davis in 1948, states that “Jane had been doing really important work for our government, and was on an official mission at the time of the accident.”

However, the CIA says that because there is limited documentation about Wallis’ activity at the time of her death—a government spokesman said at the time that she was on vacation—Wallis was “never a candidate for a star.”

“At the same time, her service with the CIA and its predecessor organizations was honorable and deserves to be remembered,” says the story on the agency’s website.

A Smith Legacy

At Smith, Wallis majored in French and participated in multiple study abroad programs in Montreal, Grenoble, and Paris. She spent her junior year abroad in France—an experience her family says was valuable when she later began working in France as an officer for the OSS.

Wallis’ class yearbook shows she brought her passion for the French language back to campus after her year abroad. She was president of the Smith French Club, as well as a member of the yearbook board in her senior year.

After graduating from Smith, Wallis married David Burrell. They lived in Cleveland and then upstate New York before relocating to Washington D.C in 1943, when David Burrell joined the U.S Naval Reserve. The couple divorced in 1947.

In recognition of the role that Smith played in Wallis’ life, her family established a scholarship in her name to support students studying in Paris. Since it was founded in 1948, approximately 60 Smithies have been awarded the Jane O’Neil Wallis Memorial Scholarship.

In the letter Wallis’ father wrote to Smith’s president a few months after her death, he talks movingly about her Smith legacy.

The year she spent studying abroad “was one of the happiest and most valuable of Jane’s life,” the letter reads, “and it seems to Mrs. Wallis and myself that helping other girls to a similar year would be the most appropriate thing we could do in Jane’s memory.”

Wallis’ memory also lives on in the College Archives, where visitors can get a glimpse of her time at Smith through yearbook photos, Ivy Day programs—and more.

The College Archives, along with all of Smith’s special collections, closes for the summer Monday, May 22, while work begins on the renovation of Neilson Library.  The archives will reopen in September in Young Library for the duration of the Neilson project. More information about availability of archive materials during the library transition is available online.

One Comment

  1. Enjoyed reading this article about a strong woman who made a difference. FYI: Jane O’Neil Wallis is pictured in the top row, second from left.

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