Alice Schafer

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Alice Schafer, 94; math professor breached social barriers

A lake at the University of Richmond marked the physical and cultural divide between the men's and women's colleges in the early 1930s, but when Alice Turner Schafer arrived as a young student, the dean advised her to challenge the historical social barrier. "You are going to be a mathematics major, and take mathematics courses on the boys' side of the lake,'' the dean told her, Dr. Schaefer would later recall in a book about women and minorities in mathematics.

She was told no female student had attended advanced mathematics courses at the university to date. Dr. Schafer not only took them and excelled in them, but became the first young woman to enter the college's annual mathematics competition - and won.

The department chair said to her, "I was surprised - I didn't think you would win,'' Dr. Schafer explained in her book. "They were fair,'' she said. "They may not have been supportive, but they were fair.''

At many colleges throughout the Northeast, Dr. Schafer encouraged young women to study mathematics, and helped those who took her courses to get beyond their fears and apprehension about her favorite subject.

"The subject is very abstract, and she really did an excellent job of presenting it and clarifying the topics and moving us along at a very high level,'' said Ellen Maycock, a former student and associate executive director of the American Mathematical Society. "Each week, she had high expectations of what I had worked on, what I had learned, but also was able to talk me through some of the more difficult or perplexing aspects of what I was working on.''

Dr. Schafer, who taught for many years at Wellesley College and Simmons College, among several others, died Sept. 27 at the Gardenview Skilled Nursing Facility at Brookhaven in Lexington. She was 94.

In her classrooms, she was "a bundle of energy, enthusiastic - absolutely nonstop and really dynamic,'' said former student Beverly Dickerson of Oakton, Va. "She loved math and loved to teach. She never made you feel like you were asking dumb questions; she always encouraged you.''

And she always was happy to explain concepts to family and friends over the phone. It was the analogies she used - and the way she broke things down step-by-step and then had her pupil repeat it back - that made it jell, said her grandson, Scott D. of Marlborough.

"She was all about 'How did you get there?' and not the final answer,'' he added.

Her love of teaching never diminished; she was still teaching at 81, maintaining a packed schedule well past retirement age. She climbed the Great Wall of China at 75.

She stayed in touch with many of her former students, making sure to visit them and to lunch with young women who continued their studies of mathematics.

Dr. Schafer, who was born in Richmond, was orphaned at a young age, which left her in the care of two sisters. She regaled her grandchildren with stories of growing up in the Virginia countryside, where she played sports with the boys although it was very much frowned upon.

She earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Richmond's Westhampton College in 1936 before taking a few years to save for graduate school by teaching high school mathematics.

Despite warnings against joining a male-dominated profession, Dr. Schafer earned a doctorate in the subject from the University of Chicago in 1942. That same year, she married Richard Schafer, a fellow math student who would later teach the subject at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Once they were out of school - and after he served in the Navy - she followed his career, teaching at nearby colleges wherever he was working. Connecticut College was her first teaching post, followed by stints at Swarthmore College, Drexel University, and the University of Michigan, to name a few. She joined the Wellesley College faculty in 1962 and stayed there for nearly two decades. She became the Helen Day Gould Professor of Mathematics at Wellesley in 1969.

Shortly after that, in 1971, she helped to form the Association for Women in Mathematics, "to encourage women to study mathematics, to create a network of professionals in mathematics and related careers, and to promote equal opportunity and treatment in the mathematical community.''

She developed a key experimental program in the mid-1970s to find new ways to approach the teaching of mathematics to college students. The subject was rapidly becoming popular among nonmath majors, and the program emphasized applications of mathematics to the humanities. It involved student tutors, a mathematics lab, and lectures by female mathematicians, according to colleagues.

She retired in 1980, but stayed on at Wellesley as the college's affirmative-action officer.

Since 1990, the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize has been awarded annually to an undergraduate woman who demonstrated excellence in mathematics.

After leaving Wellesley, she taught at Simmons College before moving with her husband to Arlington, Va., where she would take a post at Marymount University, and continued teaching there until her second retirement, in 1996.

She took her case for equality abroad, traveling to China three times in recent years through the People-to-People program - launched by President Dwight Eisenhower - with delegations that were focused on female research mathematicians, mathematics education, and women's issues in mathematics and science.

"Her enthusiasm just sparked everyone around her,'' Dickerson said.

The Mathematical Association of America recognized her work in 1998, awarding her the Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics. The citation reads, in part: "As a mathematics educator, she championed the full participation of women in mathematics. She has been a strong role model for many women and has worked to establish support groups for women in mathematics, to eliminate barriers women face in their study of mathematics and participation in the mathematics community, and to provide opportunity and encouragement for women in mathematics.''

In addition to her husband and grandson, Dr. Schafer leaves two sons, John D. of Turner, Maine, and Richard S. of Newton; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.

In keeping with her wishes, there was no funeral or memorial service.

By Emma Stickgold

November 2, 2009 © Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.