STEM Women Hall of Fame: Winifred Edgerton Merrill

Cristen Conger

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Winifred Edgerton Merrill

  • Born: September 24, 1862 in Ripon, Wisconsin
  • PhD Thesis Title: "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."
  • Historical context: Considered less intelligent than men at the time, women were often discouraged from pursuing education beyond a bachelor's degree and were largely expected to become school teachers after college, as the Civil War had put a drain on the country's supply of male teachers.

Winifred Edgerton Merrill was the first American woman to earn a PhD in mathematics, which she received from Columbia University in 1886. At just 16 years old, Merrill began her college career at Wellesley College, one of the first women's colleges in the United States. After obtaining her undergraduate degree, Merrill -- a long-time stargazer -- independently pursued astronomy research, spending time at the Harvard observatory and calculating the orbit of the Pons-Brooks comet, all of which ultimately led her to want to formally study math and astronomy at Columbia. As if working toward a math PhD isn't difficult enough (especially since hers was essentially a dual astronomy-math focus), Merrill was truly shooting for the academic stars since Columbia was an all-male institution at the time. Nonetheless, after completing her thesis in under three years in what was considered a "masculine" field, the Columbia board of trustees voted to grant her historic degree. Perhaps fueled by her gender discriminatory experience in higher education, the pioneering mathematician also went on to help found Barnard College, a women's college affiliated with Columbia University.

In reporting on the landmark graduation, The New York Times noted:

...Nothing unusual occurred until Miss Winifred Edgerton, A.B., Wellesley College, came to the stage to accept her degree...She was greeted with a terrific round of applause which the gallant students in the body of the house kept up for fully two minutes...She bore herself modestly and well in the face of the applaust of the Professors and Trustees on the stage, and the slight flush on her face was perceptible only to those quite near her."