by Annemieke Klijn (with input from Jan Joosten, Hans Philipsen and Ronald Knibbe)
Maria Johanna Drop (1935-2002) was the first female full professor at the State University Limburg. On 6 June 1980 she was appointed by royal decree to a chair in medical sociology in the Faculty of Medicine, as well as, one year later, in the Faculty of General Sciences. She felt that being a woman was less relevant than her actual achievements, even though occasionally she was quite critical of the university’s masculine mores. Her appointment coincided with a changing of the guard: at the start of 1980, Hans Philipsen (1935), also a professor of medical sociology, joined the university’s executive board to work on administrative matters. Under his supervision, Drop, who since 1975 had been on the staff of the Faculty of Medicine, earned her PhD in 1979 through a study on ‘labour division, normative integration and types of deviant behaviour’, a research project she performed at the Netherlands Institute for Preventive Medicine.
Drop was raised in a Protestant, middle-class family in the Transvaal neighbourhood in The Hague. Her father, who worked as a baker and manager in a bread factory, was arrested towards the end of the Second World War for his activities in the underground resistance movement. After being moved to the concentration camp in Amersfoort, he was one of many executed by firing squad in retaliation for the attack on the German SS officer Hans Rauter. As a young woman, Riet Drop was eager to learn, and in 1954 she graduated from advanced high school (HBS-a), after which financial support from the Stichting 1940-1945 (a foundation in support of war victims) made it possible for her to study sociology at Leiden University. That her application was first rejected only helped to strengthen her determination to study, as in 2000 she told Jacques Herraets, journalist of Continuüm, a Maastricht University quarterly. In 1964 she graduated with honours. Next, she worked at Leiden University’s Sociological Institute and as of 1967 as scientific staff member of the Netherlands Institute for Preventive Medicine/TNO in Leiden. This is where she came into contact with Philipsen, who managed to convince several staff from Leiden to move southward: not only Drop, but also Jos Diederiks and Jan Joosten.
In line with its basic philosophy, the Department of Medical Sociology initiated research on societal influences on phenomena associated with health and disease. Soon Drop became a member of its research committee. She played a pivotal role in her department’s research efforts, which were often based on teamwork. She would always encourage her fellow staff members ‘friendly yet sternly’, in the words of Ronald Knibbe, who in 1985 earned a PhD under her supervision and who later on became a professor of social epidemiology of alcohol and drug use. Riet Drop put high demands on herself as well, however. To her, doing science was like big-time sports. When supervising the research project on ‘lifestyle and behavioural change’, she focused on the following topics: psychosocial aspects of dietary behaviour and alcohol consumption, deviant behaviour, anorexia nervosa, regional variation in mortality, as well as more general structural and cultural explanations for social-economic health differences. At the same time, surprisingly perhaps, she downplayed the potential for improving our world. In her view, human beings tended towards evil, rather than being capable of doing good, which perhaps betrays her rigid Protestant background. Neither did she believe that sociology necessarily contributed to a better world. In this respect the work of Amnesty International was more relevant, according to Drop.
This sense of perspective hardly kept her from working diligently. She performed all sorts of academic activities, including membership of her faculty’s curriculum planning group and education committee. In 1989, together with Hetty Snellen (1933), she developed the medical faculty’s second curriculum revision. Moreover, she performed various administrative duties such as by being on the faculty council and the university council. But she was professionally active outside of her university as well, for instance, by being on the Health Council Advisory Committee on Epidemiological Legislation and on the board of the Foundation for Interuniversity Social Science Research and that of the Medical and Social Information Centre. As Philipsen indicated, Drop was valued everywhere as a model of ‘integrity, or even righteousness’. In 2000 she said that she wanted to go on as honorary professor of medical sociology until 2005. At the time she felt like being 30 years of age, but, as she also acknowledged, her body was 65, having less energy. Riet Drop passed away on November 3, 2002.