Winifred Edgerton Merrill

Quick Info

24 September 1862
Ripon, Wisconsin, USA
6 September 1951
Fairfield, Connecticut, USA

Winifred Edgerton was the first woman to receive a degree from Columbia University and the first American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics.


Winifred Edgerton Merrill made a vast impact on the male orientated world of mathematics. She left behind the Victorian ideal that a wellborn woman should stay at home, and went about continuing her education in mathematics to Ph.D. level. This was a fantastic achievement and Merrill became the first American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in mathematics. Her determination to obtain graduate education is an example that many have followed since.

Winifred Haring Edgerton was born on 24 September 1862 in Ripon, Wisconsin. Let us note that, although almost every source gives that as her date of birth, the passport application which she filled out in 1920 states "I was born at Ripon, Wisconsin, on or about the 20th day of September 1862." This, of course, does not contradict the 24 September date, but does seem slightly strange. Her parents were Emmet Edgerton and Clara Cooper. Emmet was born in Yates County, New York, in 1829, probably in July of that year. In August 1850, at the time of the US census, he was living in Dix, Schuyler County, New York with his mother Ann (who was widowed), and his sister Mary Edgerton aged 17. They were living with the family of William and Eliza Haring. Let us note that Winifred was given Haring as a middle name. In June 1855 Emmet, single and now with the occupation 'merchant', was still living in Dix but now just with his widowed mother and his siblings. At the time of the 1860 census Emmet is recorded as married to Clara Cooper and living in Ripon, Wisconsin with Clara's parents. Emmet now has the occupation 'farmer'.

It was while Emmet and Clara Edgerton were living in Ripon that Winifred Edgerton, the subject of this biography, was born. By 1870 Winifred appears to be living with Edward Edgerton, a real estate agent, and his wife Eva, in New York city. Her parents Emmet and Clara Edgerton are living near by. Emmet is also a real estate agent but what relation he is to Edward Edgerton is not clear. In the 1880 census Winifred Edgerton, now 17 years old, is living with her parents Emmet, with occupation real estate agent, and Clara. Eve Ritchie, age 21, Emmet's stepdaughter is living with them. This would suggest that Emmet was Clara's second husband. The data from the US census is, however, somewhat confusing. For example, Clara's age is given as 30 in 1860, 35 in 1870 and 40 in 1880. We have also failed to see how 8 year old Eber Edgerton, who was living with the family at the time of the 1860 census, fits into the picture since we can find no further record of him. Likewise we have found no further record of Eve Ritchie, Emmet's stepdaughter.

Hamilton Merrill, Winifred's elder son, gives details of Winifred's early life in [17]. We learn that private tutors provided Winifred's early education, that the authors James Russell Lowell, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Thomas Bailey Aldrich were friends of the Edgerton family, and that Winifred's love of mathematics and astronomy when she was young led to her parents having an observatory built for her at one of their homes.

Winifred decided that she wanted a college education and, in 1879 she entered Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts. This private women's college had only opened four years before Winifred began her studies there and it was remarkable for a women's college in the United States since it was the first to have scientific laboratories [11]:-
She received a strong mathematics education at Wellesley. While she was there the mathematics faculty consisted of Helen Schafer and Ellen Hayes, both Oberlin graduates; Eva Chandler, a University of Michigan graduate; and Sophia B Horr, teacher of mathematics and drawing. The mathematics electives at that time included analytic geometry, differential and integral calculus, analytical mechanics, and mathematical astronomy.
In 1883 she graduated with a B.A. degree from Wellesley College and was appointed as a teacher at Mrs Sylvanus Reed's English, French and German Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies on East 53rd Street, Central Park, New York City. This school, founded in 1864, was described in [20], written in 1883, the year in which Edgerton began teaching there:-
The body of resident pupils constitutes a most important and interesting feature of this School, one which makes much of its reputation, and which requires the most delicate and careful treatment. These resident pupils in a metropolitan school differ greatly in character and pursuits from the resident pupils in colleges and boarding schools for girls in smaller towns. One-half of these pupils are young ladies who have perhaps finished a course of English study in some of the excellent schools which are found in every part of this country. Their parents then seek for them broader and more thorough attainments in special branches, and also that discipline and training which fit them to fulfil the duties and responsibilities which devolve upon those who are called to high stations, who are to stand as landmarks in their generation.
The Pons-Brooks comet was discovered in 1812 by Jean-Louis Pons and independently a few days later by Alexis Bouvard. It was predicted to return in about 70 years so, in 1883, Edgerton obtained data from Harvard College Observatory and did her own calculations of the orbit of the comet. A comet was observed by William Robert Brooks in September 1883 which was soon identified with the comet of 1812. Edgerton was excited by her work on the comet and was very keen to become an undergraduate at Columbia University since this would give her access to the Columbia University telescope.

In January 1884 Edgerton applied to Columbia University, in New York, to be allowed to study mathematics and astronomy. Up until this time Columbia University was an institute for men only and due to this being the case Edgerton's initial request was refused. However, with the support and advice of Frederick A P Barnard, the 10th president of Columbia University who was a campaigner for women's education, Edgerton visited each trustee individually to plead her case. She argued that to be able to study astronomy she needed a telescope and only Columbia University had one and also that the Professor of Astronomy, John Krom Rees (1851-1907), required an assistant at the time. At the next meeting of the Committee on the Course and Statutes of Columbia College on 18 January, they voted to allow Edgerton to use their telescope. The minutes of the Trustees of 4 February record that Edgerton was given [11]:-
... access to the Observatory and the use of its instruments, placing her under the direction of adjunct professor Rees, with the understanding that she will render, from time to time, such assistance in the practical work of the Observatory as may be in her power.
We note that the trustees at this point had not given her permission to study for a degree, but only to use the instruments in the Observatory. Later in her life she told her son Hamilton Merrill [11]:-
... that a condition of her admission was to dust the astronomical instrument's and so comport herself as not to disturb the men students.
Edgerton, however, did unofficially attend graduate courses in both astronomy and pure mathematics. Her lecturers included William Guy Peck and John Howard Van Amringe. William Guy Peck (1820-1892) had started his career in the army as Assistant Professor of Mathematics at West Point. He was appointed Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Columbia University in 1857, was made Professor of Pure Mathematics at Columbia two years later, and in 1861 made Professor of Mechanics, and Astronomy. Edgerton wrote two dissertations, one on astronomy and one on mathematics. She explained in [19] how she came on the topic of her mathematics thesis:-
In my early education I was greatly impressed by a book by Benjamin Peirce, entitled 'Ideality in the Physical Sciences', and it was the influence of this book upon my mentality that some years later led me to choose as the subject of the thesis for my Doctor's degree in Mathematics, at Columbia University ...
She was awarded a Ph.D. for the handwritten mathematics thesis Multiple Integrals (1) Their Geometrical Interpretation in Cartesian Geometry, in Trilinears and Triplanars, in Tangentials, in Quaternions, and in Modern Geometry; (2) Their Analytical Interpretations in the Theory of Equations, Using Determinants, Invariants and Covariants as Instruments in the Investigation that:-
... dealt with geometric interpretations of multiple integrals and translations and relations of various systems of co-ordinates.
Van Amringe reported to the President of Columbia on the thesis, writing that:-
... it exhibits originality of treatment in the plan of unifying the different systems of analytical geometry, ..., the application of quaternions as a reference system for multiple integrals by means of the equations of transformation, ..., and the reduction of the equations of transformation to the simple formula, ρ=rktjskjskt\rho = r k^{t} j^{s} k j^{-s} k^{-t}.
The trustees awarded Edgerton a Ph.D., cum laude, on 7 June 1886 [13]:-
That in consideration of the extraordinary excellence of the scientific work done by Miss Winifred Edgerton, as attested by the Professors who have had the superintendence of her course in practical Astronomy, and the Pure Mathematics in the Graduate Department, the degree of Doctor of Philosophy can be conferred upon Miss Edgerton cum laude.
As a consequence, she became the first American woman to be awarded such a distinction in mathematics. The New York Times reported on her receiving the degree [7]:-
Nothing unusual occurred until Miss Winifred Edgerton, A.B., Wellesley College, came to the stage to accept her degree of Doctor of Philosophy, cum laude. 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 was modestly dressed in a walking dress of dark brown stuff, trimmed with velvet of the same material, and wore a brown chip hat which had a pompon of white lace and feathers. She bore herself modestly and well in the face of the applause of the Professors and Trustees on the stage, and the slight flush on her face was perceptible only to those quite near her. When, with the coveted parchment, she turned to leave the stage, a huge basket and two bouquets were passed up to her. The half dozen young men who had received parchment with her seemed to have lost their sense of courtesy and politeness in spite of their titles, and did not offer to assist her. She would have been obliged to carry them from the stage had not the white-haired Professor Drisler hastened to her assistance and relieved her of her floral burden. Hearty applause and a Columbia cheer greeted this act of courtesy.
She had continued teaching at Mrs Sylvanus Reed's School and was vice principal of the School in the year following her graduation. She was offered a position as a professor of mathematics at Smith College in 1887, which she declined, as in that year she married Frederick James Hamilton Merrill (1861-1916), an 1885 graduate of Columbia's School of Mines who received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1890. They were married on 1 September 1887 and had four children: Louise Merrill (1888-1982); Hamilton "Jim" Merrill (1890-1982); Winifred "Kit" Merrill (1897-1943); and Edgerton "Pete" Merrill (1901-1960). Frederick Merrill served as the New York State geologist from 1899 to 1904. He later became director of the New York State Museum.

Marriage took Merrill from her pursuit of a scholarly career. In 1889, however, she became one of the committee of five people who drafted the proposals that resulted in the foundation of Barnard College at Columbia in the same year. Barnard College was New York's first secular institution to award women the liberal arts degree. Merrill withdrew from the campaign when her husband objected to what he saw as the impropriety of committee meetings being held in men's offices in the city. It is interesting that in 1893 Winifred Edgerton Merrill should consider that "the most pressing and by far the most important question in the education of woman: 'Should instruction as to manners and dress be included in our curriculum?'" She argues her case for the appointment of a chair of dress and manners in [18]; see THIS LINK.

In 1890 the family moved to Albany when Frederick Merrill was appointed as Assistant State Geologist of New York. He became the director of New York State Museum in 1894. At this time the family were wealthy having received two large inheritances, one from Frederick Merrill's mother and one from an uncle. In total the sum was between 300 and 400 times the average annual salary at that time. Hamilton Merrill, Winifred's son, explained that [13]:-
... it was evident his family had money because each time the family moved, they moved to a more prestigious residence with more hired help. The finest of these homes was the King Mansion on Washington Avenue in Albany. The three-story brownstone even included a bowling alley. In 1894 the family also purchased a 360-acre farm in Altamont, New York, where they would summer. Their home there was the former Kushaqua Hotel, a large Victorian structure.
The Merrills entertained leading people in their fine homes. They were close friends with Teddy Roosevelt and his family and often entertained Booker T Washington, the founder of the Tuskegee Institute. In 1898 she was elected to the board of Wellesley College [2]:-
The election of Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Ph.D., alumna trustee, to succeed Estelle May Hurll, whose term of office expired June 1898, was confirmed by action of the Trustees, June 2, 1898. Mrs Merrill took her seat as a member of the Board at the called meeting September 29, 1898.
Despite their considerable inherited wealth, the family overspent. Hamilton Merrill, Winifred's son, wrote about his mother's [17]:-
... lavish parties, spending frivolously, and making bad investments.
He felt, however, that she was a [17]:-
... brilliant, forceful woman with greatness in her. She had a tremendous inner urge. After she gave up her career for her family, this urge found an outlet in four children and intense social activities.
The financial problems became very serious, Frederick Merrill was declared bankrupt and as a consequence was forced to resign as State Geologist of New York. The problems culminated in Frederick and Winifred Merrill separating in 1904. Frederick Merrill left Albany and became a mining geologist in New York City. Winifred Merrill resumed her academic career in New York City, becoming Principal of Highcliffe Hall, at Park Hill, Younkers, New York. Anne Brown had founded Anne Brown's School for Girls in New York in 1880 with the aim of promoting higher education for women. The school closed in 1902 but, in 1904, she established the day and boarding school Highcliffe Hall with Merrill as its Principal.

In 1906 Winifred Merrill founded the Oaksmere School for Girls in New Rochelle, Westchester County, New York. Her husband moved to Nogales, Arizona, in 1907, then to California in 1913. He died in Los Angeles three years later. At the time of the 1910 census Winifred Merrill was living in New Rochelle with her four children and nine others described as 'servants'. The servants consisted of a cook, five waitresses, a chambermaid, a coachman and an assistant coachman. Merrill was the Principal of Oaksmere School for Girls, while her four children have 'occupation - none'. It was a school recognised for its high scholastic standards and a branch of this school was opened in Paris in 1912. The New York Times of 19 February 1914 reported that:-
Fifty school girls of the Oaksmere School in New Rochelle fought desperately to save their recitation hall and gymnasium when it burned to-day, and were driven away only when the volunteer firemen threatened to turn the hose on them. The hall, which was a large frame building, and its contents were valued at $10,000. ... Fire was discovered in the boiler room at 11 o'clock this morning. The girls dropped their books, and while some rushed for the chemical fire extinguishers, others ran to the beach and filled buckets of water, which they dashed into the flames. Despite their efforts the fire gained headway. ... The girls who were fighting the fire refused to leave when the firemen arrived, though there was danger of the roof falling in on them. They left only when Chief James Ross shouted that he would turn the hose on them.
Soon after this the school moved to Merrill's estate on Long Island Sound in the village of Larchmont, Mamaroneck, New York.

Robert Russell Bennett (1894-1981) described in [3] how he met Merrill and how her book Musical Autograms resulted. Bennett, who married Merrill's daughter Louise in December 1919, gave the description which you can read at THIS LINK.

In 1918 Merrill published Musical Autograms. An album of seventy melodic silhouettes. In the Preface she writes that throughout her life she has undertaken a [19]:-
... mental search for coordinating elements in life-experiences, in art-forms, in the complexities of educational problems, always searching for a better understanding of the nature of things through some underlying unifying principle. ... My present invention is founded upon the principle that every line or point in nature or in art or in science is subject to mathematical expression through some one of the many systems of coordinates or reference axes, among which I include one which I denominate 'Musical Axes.' The lines referred to may exist in nature, art or science, or be seen in the imagination, but are subject always to the mathematical law and are thus capable of relative expression.
Merrill embarked on major construction projects at her school, having a swimming pool and running track built [23]:-
In addition to preparing young girls for college, Oaksmere provided them with the opportunity to become involved in athletics. The Mamaroneck campus had a variety of athletic facilities available, including a large outdoor track and an indoor swimming pool. As a result of women not being allowed to participate in the 1920 Olympics, some Oaksmere girls participated in the first international track meet for women. This meet was hosted in 1922 in Paris. The girls that attended Oaksmere had the opportunity to participate in track meets from 1921 through 1924. In May of 1923, an Oaksmere girl actually set a record for the shot-put.
This spending on sports facilities was excessive, considerably more than the money received in an appeal, and the school faced financial difficulties. Part was sold off in 1924 [25]:-
Announcement was made yesterday [1 February 1924] of the purchase of part of the Merrillton estate by the Orienta Point Beach Club, an organisation composed of members from twenty-six golf and country clubs of Westchester county. The property, now occupied by the Oaksmere School for Girls, will be converted into one of the largest water sports clubs in the East, and when Improvements are completed in June more than $400,000 will have been expended, according to a statement issued by the club.
The school, however, continued to operate and announced:" Oaksmere Mrs Merrill's School for Girls. Reopens for the Nineteenth Year Tuesday, October 7th, 1924. Address. Mrs Merrill, Orienta Point, Mamaroneck, N.Y.". In 1926 Merrill tried to found another school in Larchmont but she was not successful. After her retirement from Oaksmere in 1926 it struggled to survive and in 1928 it finally closed [13]:-
From 1928 through 1948, Winifred was the librarian at the Barbizon Hotel in New York City. This was a twenty-three-story hotel established in the 1920s to provide women a safe residential option when leaving home to seek professional careers.
On the 50th anniversary of Merrill's graduation from Wellesley, 31 March 1933, a portrait of her by Helena E Ogden Campbell was presented to Columbia by the Wellesley class of 1883 and the Columbia Women's Graduate Club. Dr Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University accepted the painting and Dean Virginia Gildersleeve of Barnard College made the presentation speech. It was hung in Columbia's Philosophy Hall but later moved to the Low Library. The inscription beneath it symbolises her achievement in mathematics and her contribution to the further education of women, it reads:-
She opened the door.
The Columbia Alumni News of 1939 reported that [9]:-
... she has four children and five grandchildren, resides at The Barbizon, is a vehement supporter of President Roosevelt among a family of Republicans and was active in the campaign to repeal the eighteenth amendment, speaking from soapboxes throughout the city.
It was with her elder son, Hamilton Merrill, that Merrill lived during the last two years of her life. She died on the 6 September 1951 in Fairfield, Connecticut but her funeral was held in Trinity Episcopal Church in New York, the same church in which she had been married.

Finally, let us quote from Beaulah Amidon [1]:-
Several years ago, ... I had the privilege of a long conversation with Mrs Merrill. ... Though almost eighty years of age at the time, her eyes were on the future, and she was much more interested in the progress of women in business and the professions than in the old battle for their higher education, in which she played so notable a part.

References (show)

  1. B Amidon, Tribute to Mrs Merrill, New York Times (20 September 1951).
  2. Annual Reports of the President and Treasurer of Wellesley College 1899 (Frank Wood, Boston, 1900).
  3. R R Bennett and G Ferencz (eds.), The Broadway Sound. The Autobiography and Selected Essays of Robert Russell Bennett (University of Rochester Press, 1999).
  4. Columbia to Honor First Woman Student: Portrait of Mrs Merrill, Who Received Degree in 1886 to Be Hung at University, New York Times (26 March 1933).
  5. Columbia Honors its First Woman Graduate, New York Times (1 April 1933).
  6. S Davidson, Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Honours Project, University of St Andrews (2001).
  7. Ending life at college: Commencement exercises of Columbia College. Awarding of honors at the Academy of Music - Miss Winifred Edgerton receives a degree, New York Times (10 June 1886).
  8. J S Faier, Columbia's First Woman Graduate, Columbia Today (Winter 1977), 27-29.
  9. First Alumna Button-Holed Trustees for Degree; Second Woman Listed as Columbia College Grad, Columbia Alumni News (28 April 1939), 8.
  10. J Green and J LaDuke, Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Pioneering Women in American Mathematics (American Mathematical Society, Providence, Rhode Island, 2009).
  11. J Green and J LaDuke, Merrill, Winifred (Edgerton), Supplementary Material for Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 PhDs, American Mathematical Society (6 October 2015).
  12. G Kass-Simon and P Farnes, Winifred Edgerton Merrill, in G Kass-Simon and P Farnes (eds.), Women of Science: Righting the Record (Indiana University Press, 1990).
  13. S E Kelly and S A Rozner, Winifred Edgerton Merrill: 'She opened the door', Notices Amer. Math. Soc. 59 (4) (2012), 504-521.
  14. Married at Trinity, New York Times (2 September 1887).
  15. A N Meyer, Barnard Beginnings (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, MA, 1935).
  16. Mrs Merrill, 88, Columbia Pioneer: First Woman Graduate of the University Dies-Leader in Founding of Barnard, New York Times (7 September 1951).
  17. H Merrill, Frederick James Hamilton Merrill and Winifred Edgerton Merrill (Hamilton Merrill's Personal Journal in the Merrill family possession, 4 September 1974).
  18. W E Merrill, Should instruction as to manners and dress be included in the curriculum?, Regents' Bulletin, University of the State of New York 8 (January 1893), 450-451.
  19. W E Merrill, Musical Autograms. An album of seventy melodic silhouettes (G Schirmer, New York, 1918).
  20. C G Reed, Mrs Sylvanus Reed's English, French and German Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies (American Church Press, New York, 1883).
  21. L Riddle, Winifred Edgerton Merrill, September 24, 1862 - September 6, 1951, Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College (25 February 2015).
  22. R Rosenberg, Changing the Subject How the Women of Columbia Shaped the Way We Think About Sex and Politics (Columbia University Press, 2004).
  23. S Rozner, Winifred Edgerton Merrill: Her Contributions to Mathematics and Women's Opportunities, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, Journal of Undergraduate Research XI (2008).
  24. S Rozner and S E Kelly, Winifred Edgerton Merrill Cheered As First American Woman Awarded Mathematics Ph.D., Explore Trailblazing History!, Racing Nellie Bly.
  25. Scarsdale Inquirer 5 (10) (2 February 1924), 3.
  26. Winifred Edgerton, Class of 1883, Wellesley Alumnae, Wellesley-in-Westchester.
  27. Winifred Edgerton Merrill, Obituary, New York Times (7 September, 1951).
  28. Winifred Edgerton Merrill, in The National Cyclopaedia of American Biography being the history of the United States XLI (James T White & Co, New York, 1956), 113.
  29. D E Zitarelli, A History of Mathematics in the United States and Canada (American Mathematical Society, 2019).

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Winifred Edgerton Merrill:

  1. Agnes Scott College
  2. Mathematical Genealogy Project

Cross-references (show)

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