Women in math/math history

I recently went to a talk by Margaret Murray; she is the author of Women Becoming Mathematicians, a history of 36 of the 200 or so women who got Ph. D.s in mathematics in the United States in the years 1940-1959. (Why these years? Well, largely because the period before 1940 was already taken.) I learned a great many very interesting things from her talk. Here are a few of them:

  • The first Ph. D. in the US was granted in 1862, at Yale.  (My notes are a tiny bit sketchy; it’s possible that this was the first Ph. D. in mathematics, but I think what I’ve written is correct.)
  • The first woman to receive a Ph. D. in math in the US was Winifred Edgerton, at Columbia in 1886.  However, Christine Franklin was the first woman to do research for which a doctorate in mathematics was granted.  (She was a special student at Johns Hopkins in the period 1878-1882, but they refused to grant her a degree.  She left mathematics and moved to what would now be called psychology.  Four decades later, in 1926, she was apparently offered an honorary degree from Hopkins for her work in psychology, but she requested that instead they give her the Ph. D. in mathematics that she had earned.)
  • MIT didn’t grant its first Ph. D. in mathematics to a woman until 1930.  (The recipient was Dorothy Weeks.)  The cause of this relatively late date is not that MIT was particularly late granting Ph. D.s to women, but instead that MIT was late granting Ph. D.s in mathematics to anyone — the first one was some time in the 1920s.  (Aside: the MIT math department was part of Course IX, “General Studies”, until 1933, when it was promoted to an independent entity as Course XVIII.  A little additional history with a few references is available here)
  • I learned about this great series of essays by Cathy Kessel about women in mathematics and the misuse of statistics about mathematics and gender.  (I haven’t poked much around the rest of the blog, but I imagine it’s good, too.)
  • I learned about Scott Williams, who has an interesting-looking webpage on mathematicians of the African diaspora (but I haven’t dug into it yet).
  • I learned about Mary Celine Fasenmyer, whose work was the basis for WZ-theory.

In unrelated news, I learned that MathOverflow might be an unpleasant place for women  — at least, that discussion, and the fact that the moderators let a couple of trolling* posters shut it down completely, makes it an unpleasant place for me.  The one positive thing to come out of it is that there was a link to this very nice blog.

* Trolling: one possible variation of the Wikipedia definition of “troll” is “one who posts inflammatory messages in order to disrupt normal discussion.”

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