Achsah Mount Ely
Millhurst, New Jersey, USA
Poughkeepsie, New York, USA
BiographyAchsah Mount Ely was the daughter of Joseph J Ely (1814-1885) and Catherine Conover (1815-1901). Joseph Ely was a farmer who married Catherine Conover on 24 December 1840; they had eight children. William Ely was born on 26 August 1842 and died when just over one year old on 14 December 1843. Their second child, Jane Eliza Ely was born on 17 October 1844, followed by Achsah Mount Ely on 10 November 1845, who is the subject of this biography. Several of Achsah's younger siblings died when babies: Catherine Louisa Ely (1848-1850); Emma Ely (1853-1854); and Charles Henry Ely (1856-1856). Helen A Ely (1857-1874) died aged seventeen. The only two of her younger siblings to live adult lives were Ann Hunt Ely (1850-1918) and Katherine Ely (1859-1927). Of the four children who lived to adulthood, only one, Ann Hunt Ely, married.
Achsah Ely studied at the Young Ladies' Seminary, Freehold, New Jersey, graduating in 1863. The Freehold Young Ladies' Seminary was founded by Amos Richardson in 1844 and operated for several decades, at least through to the 1880s :-
The Freehold Young Ladies' Seminary emphasised that its "extensive" course of study "requires a longer period than is usually devoted to study by young Ladies; but it is believed not to be more extensive than the present state of society demands."After graduating from the Freehold Young Ladies' Seminary in 1863, she waited for Vassar College to accept its first classes and she entered the College in 1865. This women's college was the first of the "seven sister" colleges and had been founded by Matthew Vassar in Poughkeepsie, New York in 1861. Building began in 1863 and the first class was admitted in 1865. She was taught by Charles S Farrar (1826-1903), who was Vassar's first professor of mathematics, chemistry, and physics. Farrar was described as "man of wonderful magnetism, a subtle intellect, and a power of presentation that made the students breathless on his prayers and his lectures." Ely also studied astronomy with Maria Mitchell and was one of the graduates of Vassar College who travelled to Burlington, Iowa with Mitchell to observe the 7 August 1869 solar eclipse. They used a three-inch Alvan Clark telescope which had been specially made for the occasion. In 1867 Ely is listed as one of 18 students in the Junior Class, with her address Manalapan, Monmouth County, New Jersey. She graduated from Vassar College in on 24 June 1868 and she was one of eight students chosen to read their work at the Commencement; she read "The Philosophy of Herbert Spencer".
After the award of an A.B. from Vassar College, she served for two years as a woman teacher at the Connecticut Literary Institute in Suffield, Connecticut. The Institute had been founded in 1833 to train young men for the ministry in the Baptist Church but soon, as the only high school in Suffield, became non-denominational with both men and women students. It received local government funding helped to pay for each student's tuition. The Institute had both men and women as teachers, but it is not clear whether the women teachers only taught the female students. Certainly the women were paid less than the men and they all appear to remain at the Institute for only one or two years.
Ely's next appointment was as a Higher Mathematics teacher at the Peddie Institute at Hightstown, New Jersey in September 1872. The Peddie School was founded in 1864 as the Hightstown Female Seminary, a Baptist preparatory school. Later that year, boys were admitted, and the school began a series of name changes. In 1872, the school took its current name in honour of philanthropist and politician Thomas B Peddie (1808-1889), who gave the school a $25,000 gift. When Ely began teaching there the principal was Hiram Alden Pratt but he left in 1875 and LaRoy Griffin became principal. Ely remained at the Peddie Institute until June 1876. She was appointed to teach in the Normal College, New York City, and began teaching there on 20 September 1876 :-
In 1847, the New York State Legislature created the Free Academy to provide post-grade school education for boys, but no such school for girls yet existed. On 17 November 1869, a newly established Board of Education passed a resolution creating the Female Normal and High School, which would train women to become teachers and provide high school and college level courses. In 1870, the school's name changed to "The Normal College of the City of New York." The goal of this institution was to provide free higher education to women. Thomas Hunter, a former principal, became the school's first president; he insisted on admitting students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and teaching a combined curriculum of liberal arts, science, and education.In 1914 The Normal College of the City of New York was renamed Hunter College, in honour of Thomas Hunter.
At the time of the 1880 U.S. Census, Achsah Ely was living at Manalapan, Monmouth, New Jersey, with her parents and her two sisters Ann and Kate. Her occupation is given as "teaching school" while her sisters had no occupation listed. During her time at the Normal College of the City of New York, Ely was given leave to undertake graduate work at Newnham College, Cambridge, England, and then at Chicago University which accepted women from 1872.
In 1887 Ely was elected head of the Department of Mathematics at Vassar College, where she remained until her death in December 1904. On 1 May 1891 Ely joined the New York Mathematical Society, joining on the same day as Charlotte Scott. They were the only two women members of the Society in the 1 May 1891 list of members.
In the Vassar College Catalogue 1894-95, Ely explained the mission of the Mathematics Department at Vassar College :-
The aim in all courses is to cultivate habits of exact, sustained and independent reasoning, of precision and clearness in the statement of convictions and the reasons upon which they depend; to rely upon insight, originality and judgment rather than on memory. The endeavour is to secure full possession of leading principles and methods rather than of details. From the first, students who show special aptitude are encouraged in the working of subjects, which require more prolonged investigation than the daily exercise of the classroom.John McCleary, in the excellent article , gives a good account of Ely's contributions to Vassar College in her role as Head of Mathematics:-
Ely had a strong interest in expanding the offerings of the Mathematics Department, to provide the "elastic character of the curriculum of the college" with "modern mathematical thought." Students were studying solid analytic geometry for which visualisation of algebraic surfaces is an important skill to acquire. She obtained funds to buy the plaster-of-Paris models manufactured by Brill and Schilling in Darmstadt ... .Achsah Ely had been an active member of the Alumnae Association of Vassar College from its earliest beginnings, and in 1871-1872 she had served as chairman of its first committee to secure alumnae representation on the Board of Trustees. From February 1885 to 1890, she was chairman of the committee which secured the money and built the college gymnasium. This was later named Ely Hall in her honour. She served as an officer of both the A. C. A. and the Vassar Associations, having been the president of the Vassar Association from 1894 to 1896.
Although she did not have a doctorate in mathematics, Achsah Ely was thoroughly engaged in the subject, even at the international level. She attended the second International Congress of Mathematicians held in Paris in the summer of 1900, one of seven women among the 250 or so participants listed in the proceedings.
Under the leadership of Ely, the first PhD in mathematics was hired into the department. Ruth Gentry obtained the first PhD awarded to a woman by Bryn Mawr College in 1896, having studied in Berlin and in Paris before taking a position at Vassar in 1894 where she taught until 1902. Around this time the college offered opportunities for graduate study, which included advanced courses on projective geometry, differential equations, and modern methods of analytics. Seniors studied advanced integral calculus, the quaternions, and analytic mechanics.
On 13 December 1904, Ely was working on the Vassar College campus. As she walked across the campus she suffered a fatal heart attack. She was buried in Old Tennent Churchyard, Tennent, Monmouth County, New Jersey. We note that, although all records give her year of birth as 1845, her tombstone gives 1846. A Memorial Service was held for Ely in 1905 and at that service, Mary Watson Whitney gave an address. Like Ely, Mary Whitney had been in the first class of students at Vassar College. She said :-
Miss Ely and I came together to this place, to begin our collegiate course. ... The College was an experiment - it was not wholly a college. Many people did not believe in it at all; some within its own walls doubted if it could pass the experimental stage and result in any essential degree unlike the many seminaries and academies that then represented the finishing stage of a girl's education. ... In this small group of college students of that early day there was no other more earnest and eager and hopeful than Miss Ely. She was imbued with ambition for the successful working of the experiment.In  the Vassar College memorial minute for Achsah Ely is quoted:-
In the words of the president of Vassar College, "She became an inspiration to many students to pursue a life of study. She has gone, but she has left a heritage full of encouragement, a lesson to all of you who are in the college to-day."
- R P Ely, W S Ely and D B Ely, An historical narrative of the Ely, Revell and Stacye families who were among the founders of Trent (Fleming H Revell Co., New York, 1910).
- C Johnson and D B Brown, The Commencement of Vassar's "First Collegiate" Class, June 24 1868.
- L McMahon, "A More Accurate and Extensive Education than is Customary": Educational Opportunities for Women in Early-Nineteenth-Century New Jersey, New Jersey History 124 (2009), 1-28.
- J McCleary, A History of Mathematics at Vassar College, Vassar College.
- Members of the Society January 1, 1901.
- New York Mathematical Society, List of Members, May 1st 1891.
- Sudden Death of Freehold Woman, Asbury Park Press (15 December 1904).
- The Normal College of the City of New York Collection 1870-1914: Finding Aid, Hunter College Libraries.
- The Peddie Story, The Peddie School.
- Vassar College Catalogue 1894-95.
Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2023
Last Update June 2023