Annie Louise MacKinnon Fitch

Quick Info

1 June 1868
Woodstock, Ontario, Canada
12 September 1940
Kirkland, Oneida County, New York, USA

Annie MacKinnon was the third woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics from an American university. She was a postdoctoral student at Göttingen with Felix Klein, then a Professor of Mathematics at Wells College, New York. She gave up her career when she married Edward Fitch.


Annie MacKinnon Fitch is known both as Annie MacKinnon and by her married name of Annie MacKinnon Fitch. Annie was the daughter of Malcolm MacKinnon (1838-1903) and Annie Louise Gilbert (1842-1919). Malcolm MacKinnon, born 12 February 1838 in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada, married Annie Gilbert on 31 December 1863 in Oxford, Ontario, Canada. Annie Gilbert had been born on 11 July 1842 in Toronto, Canada. Malcolm and Annie MacKinnon had five children: Gilbert J MacKinnon (1866-1877), Annie Louise McKinnon (1868-1940), the subject of this biography, Malcolm MacKinnon (1870-), Frederick Benjamin Mackinnon (1872-), and Donald Stanley MacKinnon (1879-1975). The first two children were born in Ontario, Canada, but the family moved to Concordia, Kansas, USA in 1869 and their final three children were all born in Concordia. Malcolm MacKinnon declared his intention to become a naturalised American citizen on 25 January 1871 and was naturalised on 9 June 1875. As his daughter, Annie also became a naturalised American on 9 June 1875. The 1870 US census records Malcolm as a real estate agent, but in the 1880 census he is recorded as a hardware merchant.

Annie grew up in Concordia and was educated at Concordia High School. She graduated from the High School in 1875 and in that year began her studies at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, about 40 km west of Kansas City. This university had only been opened in 1866 and the first class graduated in 1873, only two years before MacKinnon began her studies there. The Chancellor of the University was John Fraser, a military general born in Cromarty, Scotland, who also taught mathematics at the University. MacKinnon majored in mathematics and graduated with a B.S. in 1889; she then continued to undertake graduate work at the University. This meant that she was certainly the first woman graduate student in mathematics at the University of Kansas; only two men had enrolled as mathematics graduate students before her.

While continuing to study for a Master's Degree, she was appointed as a mathematics teacher at Lawrence High School. This school had opened in 1857 in the basement of a Unitarian Church to serve the growing population of the city. Its first specially built building was completed in 1865. MacKinnon was awarded a Master's Degree from the University of Kansas in 1891 and continued to teach at Lawrence High School for one further year while she undertook research at the University of Kansas advised by Henry Byron Newson (1860-1910). Henry Newson had been appointed as a professor of mathematics at the University of Kansas one year before. He was working on the book Continuous groups of projective transformations treated synthetically which he published in 1895. We note that Henry Newson married the mathematician Mary Frances Winston in 1900.

MacKinnon spent one year as Henry Newson's student before she enrolled at Cornell University in October 1892 to undertake research for a Ph.D. advised by James Edward Oliver (1829-1895). We quote the description of Oliver taken from [8]:-
Professor Oliver was born in Salem, Massachusetts, of Quaker parentage, in 1829. He was the poet of the class of 1849 at Harvard, and the favourite pupil of Professor Benjamin Peirce, who always declared that "Jimmy Oliver was the best mathematician who had ever come under his notice." As a teacher, Professor Oliver was thorough, painstaking, considerate, and, above all, inspiring by his wealth of suggestiveness and depth of intellectual insight. His methods in the classroom were very informal, and he seldom lost an opportunity of making a good joke, even when the joke was on himself. As he was happiest when the textbook could be laid aside and he could follow his own bent, it is possible that he did not always attain the best results with a miscellaneous class of undergraduates; but with an "audience fit though few," he was wont to open up new vistas, sometimes forgetting the lapse of time in his enthusiasm. His publications are not numerous, for the drudgery of working up an article for permanent form was peculiarly irksome to him, especially after the freshness of discovery had passed away; and, during his best years, he had small leisure for writing, as he had then comparatively few assistants, and his recitation hours sometimes amounted to more than twenty in the week. His high original power was of the kind that shows itself not so much in published writings as in familiar classroom talks, and in the inspiration which they impart to others; and it is thus he would wish his name to live. As regards the silent influence of his life, there must be many hundreds of students and others who still derive inspiration from the memory of his high standards, and the rare beauty of his life and character with its unusual freedom from self-consciousness.
MacKinnon was awarded the Erastus Brooks Fellowship for session 1893-94 and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1894 for her thesis Concomitant Binary Forms in Terms of the Roots. The paper [9], published in the Annals of Mathematics, is labelled:-
Dissertation presented to the Faculty of Cornell University in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.
She also presented for the degree, first - minor quantics and statics, and second - minor mathematical physics. In the thesis she thanks James McMahon (1856-1922) for his help with the third chapter. McMahon was an Irish mathematician who had been awarded an A.B. from Dublin (1881). He had sailed to New York in January 1883 and was an instructor at Cornell (1884-90), and an assistant professor (1890-1904), during the time MacKinnon studied for her Ph.D. He was appointed to a full professorship in 1904.

You can read the Preface to MacKinnon's Ph.D. thesis, as presented in the paper [9], at THIS LINK.

An Association of Collegiate Alumnae European Fellowship funded MacKinnon for postdoctoral work at Göttingen in 1894-95 to be supervised by Felix Klein. This Fellowship had been set up in 1889-90 by a committee chaired by Christine Ladd-Franklin. They had raised 500 dollars for a European Fellowship to be awarded only for study abroad. In the following year Ruth Gentry had become the first mathematician to be awarded the Fellowship which had allowed her to study in Berlin. A Women's Education Association of Boston European Fellowship funded MacKinnon for a second year at Göttingen. The Women's Education Association of Boston had been founded in 1871 to promote better education for women, both in primary and secondary schools and in the field of higher education. It became a force for improving education for women both locally and nationally and one of its functions was the award of fellowships for female scholars in higher education from around the country.

Three Americans who were studying at Göttingen at the same time as MacKinnon should be mentioned here. John H Tanner, who was awarded a B.S. in 1891, had been an Instructor in Mathematics at Cornell in 1892-94, the two years that MacKinnon was at Cornell, and was then two years at Göttingen, the same two years 1894-96 during which MacKinnon studied there. He returned to Cornell in 1896 as an assistant professor. The second person to mention was Mary Frances Winston who was at Göttingen from 1893 to 1996 studying for her Ph.D. She also had a year funded by an Association of Collegiate Alumnae European Fellowship. As we mentioned above, she later married Henry Newson who had been MacKinnon's advisor for a year. The third person who was at Göttingen at this time that we must mention was Edward Fitch, an assistant professor of Greek at Hamilton College, who was undertaking research for his doctorate. He later became MacKinnon's husband so we will give more details about him below.

After she returned to the United States from the two years spent in Göttingen, MacKinnon was appointed Professor of Mathematics at Wells College in 1896. This women's College had been founded in July 1868 in Aurora, New York by Henry Wells, the co-founder of Wells-Fargo. It was a small college and MacKinnon was the only member of the mathematics department, teaching the whole mathematics syllabus. She took on even more work when she was college registrar in 1900-01.

In 1897 she was one of the first women to join the American Mathematical Society. See THIS LINK.

On 3 July 1901 MacKinnon married Edward Fitch (1864-1946) in Lakeside, Ohio. Edward Fitch had been born on 21 May 1864 to George William Fitch and Harriet Sinclair in Walton, New York. He was awarded an A.B. by Hamilton College in 1886 and a Ph.D. by Göttingen in 1896 for his thesis De Argonautarum Reditu Quaestiones Selectae . He was Professor of Greek at Park College from 1886-89, then Assistant Professor of Greek at Hamilton College from 1889, promoted to Associate Professor of Greek in 1899 [3]:-
He devoted his life to teaching young men Greek at provincial Hamilton College in northern New York State. A graduate of the college, he always lived near it and is buried on its grounds. He had two great students, Benjamin D Meritt and the poet Ezra Pound. He published little, for he had no library and little time; but nothing that he published was foolish. He was a loyal man, loyal to Hamilton and loyal to his teacher Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff.
MacKinnon gave up her career when she married Edward Fitch [7]:-
In the late 1920s, she reported to the American Association of University Women that "after [her] marriage [she] continued upon mathematical investigations started some years before."
Now MacKinnon only had two publications, both from work done for her Ph.D. The first contained the note, given after the references:-
The tables referred to in Part I, Chapter III, will be given in a future number of the 'Annals'.
These tables were published in the second paper [10] published four years later. It states:-
This paper is supplementary to that which appeared in Nos. 4 and 5 of Vol. IX, and contains the Tables to which reference was made.

Tables of the irreducible Covariants and Invariants of the lower quantics including the Sextic, and of pairs of the first four quantics (including the linear quantic).
The four year delay was the result of her two years in Göttingen and then her extremely heavy teaching and administrative duties at Wells College. While at Göttingen she had continued her research but she was not able to complete and publish it due to the heavy work at Wells. After her marriage, she did go back to this work but never published it.

The years of World War I, from 1914 to 1918, were quite difficult ones for both Annie and her husband because of their strong German connections [3]:-
Fitch resisted the anti-German hysteria of World War I, typified by Paul Shorey and J A Scott. Rather, with men like B L Gildersleeve and W A Oldfather he defended German philology in reviews and in refutations of the excesses of the chauvinists. This earned him the gratitude of his teacher. Wilamowitz cited his dissertation with approval in the most influential book ever written on Hellenistic poetry: "The American, E Fitch, earned his doctorate with a valuable dissertation and today is still a good friend of mine, perhaps the only one over there who really knows the Hellenistic poets."
Annie Fitch was active in promoting women [14]:-
She devoted much time and energy to encouraging women to take a public spirited interest in their local, state and national communities.
We also learn from [6]:-
Annie Fitch was a member of the League of Women Voters and was on the book committee of a nearby town library.
She continued her mathematical interests throughout her life [6]:-
She was a charter member of the Mathematical Association of America and maintained that membership until her death at age seventy-two. She died at her home in Clinton, New York, after a long illness, having written to Helen Owens in May 1940, a few months before her death: "It seems to me worthwhile that some women are intelligent about things mathematical even if their own accomplishments are not great."
We note that we have given Kirkland, Oneida County, New York, as the place of Annie Fitch's death. This does not contradict the above quote since Kirkland, where the Fitchs lived, is in the Clinton area, as is Hamilton College. Annie Fitch was buried in Hamilton College Cemetery, Clinton. Her husband, Edward Fitch, died on 15 April 1946. The New York Times reported:-
CLINTON, N.Y., April 15 - Dr Edward Fitch, Edward North Professor Emeritus of Greek at Hamilton College and dean from 1926 to 1932, died this morning in Walton, N.Y., where he had made his home in recent years. He had been ill for many months. His age was 81.
Annie and Edward Fitch share a grave in Hamilton College Cemetery where Edward Fitch is described as "Professor of Greek" while Annie Fitch is described as "His Wife."

Following her death, the Annie L MacKinnon Scholarship was established by her husband Edward Fitch at Hamilton College with the stipulation that preference be given to a student whose record shows ability and interest in mathematics.

References (show)

  1. Annie Louise MacKinnon Fitch, Find a Grave.
  2. Annie MacKinnon Fitch, Hamilton Alumni Review 6 (1) (1940), 50.
  3. W M Calder, Fitch, Edward, Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences.
  4. M R S Creese and T M Creese, Ladies in the laboratory?: American and British women in science, 1800-1900: a survey of their contributions to research (Scarecrow Press, 1998).
  5. W C Eells, American doctoral dissertations on mathematics and astronomy written by women in the nineteenth century, The Mathematics Teacher 50 (5) (1957), 374-376.
  6. J Green and J LaDuke, Fitch, Annie (MacKinnon), Pioneering Women in American Mathematics (American Mathematical Society, Providence, Rhode Island, 2009).
  7. J Green and J LaDuke, Fitch, Annie (MacKinnon), Supplementary Material for Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 PhDs, American Mathematical Society (6 October 2015).
  8. W T Hewett, Cornell University: A History (University Publishing Society, New York, 1905).
  9. A L MacKinnon, Concomitant Binary Forms in Terms of the Roots, Annals of Mathematics 9 (1/6) (1894-1895), 95-157
  10. A L MacKinnon, Concomitant Binary Forms in Terms of the Roots, Annals of Mathematics 12 (1/6) (1898-99), 95-109.
  11. Mrs Edward Fitch (Obituary), New York Times (13 September 1940).
  12. Mrs Edward Fitch of College Hill Expires, Clinton Courier (19 September 1940).
  13. L Riddle, Annie MacKinnon Fitch, Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College (25 February 2016).
  14. L Saloff-Coste, Cornell Mathematics History Page, Cornell University (13 November 2019).
  15. B S Whitman, Women in the American Mathematical Society before 1900, Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter 13 (4) (1983), 10-14.
  16. D E Zitarelli, A History of Mathematics in the United States and Canada (American Mathematical Society, 2019).
  17. D E Zitarelli, Annie Louise MacKinnon, Exceptional American women mathematicians,

Additional Resources (show)

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update December 2021