Winifred Edgerton Merrill Cheered As First American Woman Awarded Mathematics Ph.D.

It was a time when women were widely considered less intelligent than men. Even paintings created by women were viewed as inferior. There was certainly no place for women in mathematics, except as elementary school teachers. In the midst of this, Winifred Edgerton Merrill was cheered at the all-male Columbia University graduation of 1886 with a two-minute standing ovation. She was the first American Woman awarded with a Mathematics PhD with a dual focus in Astronomy.

The title of Merrill’s handwritten PhD thesis deserves its own paragraph. The short version is “Multiple Integrals.” The complete title is “Multiple Integrals and Their Geometrical Interpretation of Cartesian Geometry, in Trilinears and Triplanars, in Tangentials, in Quaternions, and in Modern Geometry; Their Analytical Interpretations in the Theory of Equations, Using Determinants, Invariants and Covariants as Instruments in the Investigation.”

If you didn’t trip on that title and you’re interested in exploring Merrill’s thesis, Sarah Rozner has written an excellent analysis in: Winifred Edgerton Merrill: Her Contributions To Mathematics And Women’s Opportunities.

Winifred Edgerton Merrill “Opened The Door”

Columbia Women’s graduate club in conjunction with Wellesley class of 1883 honored Winifred Edgerton Merrill in 1933. They hung this portrait of her in the Philosophy Hall at Columbia with a plaque that reads: She Opened The Door.”

Despite the open door, Jane C. Hu in her November 4, 2016 article for The Atlantic asks “Why Are There So Few Women Mathematicians?” According to Hu gender disparities in the field of mathematics remain pervasive to this day. The male-dominated field is an old’ boys’ club to women.

“Even when women are brilliant, their accomplishments may be viewed differently by colleagues.”

Women hold roughly 15% of tenure-track positions. That’s followed by computer science at 18% and engineering at 14%.

11 Hurdles Winifred Edgerton Merrill Cleared With Style

#1For starters, she entered Wellesley College, one of the first women’s colleges in America, when she was only 16. She graduated with honors, earning her undergraduate degree in 1883.

#2In 1883, she used data provided by the Harvard College Observatory  to independently calculate the orbit of the Pons-Brooks comet of 1883. Her excellent work earned her access to the telescope at Columbia University.

#3Her studies at the all-male institution of Columbia were dual focused on astronomy and mathematics. She was told not to bother the male students.

#4She was not allowed to attend lectures.  Instead, she had to study, mostly alone from the course text. Some of her male classmates asked their professor to give her the most difficult textbook of their time. Clearly, they were unaware that she had already studied that specific text at Wellesley.

#5 Winifred Edgerton Merrill was lonely during her studies. She spent long hours alone at her telescope. According to Sarah A. Rozner in “Winifred Edgerton Merrill: ‘She Opened The Door,” Merrill had a large chest filled with twenty dolls. When she was alone, she arranged the dolls around her. When someone approached her lab, she quickly scooped up her dolls and stowed them safely in the chest.

#6When Winifred Edgerton Merrill was given permission to use Columbia University’s Observatory she also had to serve as the laboratory assistant (The Harem Effect On Female Scientists) to the director. This mean she had to spend long hours cleaning the instruments.

 #7She received her degree of Doctor of Philosophy cum laude in practical Astronomy and Pure Mathematics. Yes, her thesis was two-fold. Like Ginger Rogers, she did everything the boys did; only she did it backwards in high heels.

#8According to the New York Times (June 10, 1886), on graduation day, she was given a two-minute round of applause.

“The flush on her face was only visible to those nearby. She was given a huge basket of flowers. The six men who were awarded degrees with her did not help her carry the enormous basket. She was relieved of her floral burden by white-haired Professor Drisler.”

#9In 1888, Merrill served on a five-member committee that founded Barnard College. It was an affiliate of Columbia, specifically for female students.

#10She drafted the proposal for Barnard, but later had to resign. The meetings with the all-male committee were held in the offices of one of the members. Merrill’s husband felt this was improper behavior for a woman.

#11 Merrill and her husband went through their estate. After the birth of her fourth child, they were forced into bankruptcy. Difficulties eventually lead to divorce in 1904. She became the principal f Anne Brown’s School for Girls in New York City and founded Oaksmere School for Girls in Rochelle, New York. A branch of the school opened in Paris in 1914.

Sarah Rozner and Susan Kelly

Sarah A. Rozner and Susan E. Kelly offer an excellent biography in the Notices Of The American Mathematical Society, “Winifred Edgerton Merrill: ‘She Opened The Door.”

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