Downing wrote her dissertation on Martin Buber and was the first woman upon whom Drew University bestowed a doctorate. She began her exemplary teaching career at Rutgers University in 1963. In 1974 she moved to California to teach at San Diego State University where she remained for eighteen years, ten of which she served as chair of the Department of Religious Studies. In 1974, when Dr. Downing became the first woman president of the American Academy of Religion, she gave her presidential address on “Sigmund Freud and the Mythological Tradition,” a presentation which marked an important early public expression of her life-long scholarly emphasis on Freud.