British-born Charlotte Angas Scott (1858-1931) was pivotal in the development of mathematics education in the United States. She was among the first faculty members at Bryn Mawr College and the school's first head mathematics teacher. She devised the curriculum at the college and standardized minimum mathematics requirements nationally through the College Entrance Examination Board. She also helped organize the American Mathematical Society.
Uphill Battle to Learn Math
Scott was born on June 8, 1858, in Lincoln, England. She was the daughter of the Reverend Caleb and Eliza Ann Exley Scott. Her father was president of Lancashire College, located near Manchester, England. He was also a Congregationalist minister. Her grandfather was also an educator. Both men were social reformers and presidents of Congregational Church colleges. Scott, one of seven children, was tutored in mathematics beginning at age seven by students from her father's school.
In that era, women were not encouraged to seek anything beyond a basic education. The prevailing wisdom was that intellectual pursuits would damage a young woman's health and marital prospects. Despite this, her family wanted Scott to have a university education and encouraged her academically from a young age.
Scott was awarded a scholarship to Hitchin College (now Girton College, the women's division of Cambridge University). There were only ten other women in her class, and they were forced to sit behind a screen that separated them from the male students and obscured their view of the blackboard. Unescorted women found on the school grounds could be carted to the Spinning House, a prison for prostitutes.
But during Scott's stay at the university, conditions were changing. Starting in 1872, undergraduate women were allowed to take the 50-hour-long oral examinations for third-year students in mathematics on an informal basis. Scott took the examination in January 1880 and placed eighth among all students. University policy was not to reveal the results, but word of her accomplishment spread. Scott was not recognized at the awards ceremony, save by a few young men who shouted "Scott of Girton!" when her name should have been read. Women were not permitted to be at the commencement exercises, but Scott was reportedly "crowned with laurels" in a private ceremony.
"Her spectacular achievement in a 'man's field' sparked a movement that culminated in a resolution enabling all resident women to take Cambridge examinations and to have their names publicly announced with those of men," wrote Patricia C. Kenschaft in The College Mathematics Journal in 1987. Cambridge allowed women to take examinations with the male students beginning in February 1881.
Earned Pioneering Degree
Scott continued her studies at the University of London under Arthur Cayley, her doctoral adviser and mentor. Scott began attending his lectures in 1880. "Students had to pay extra to attend university lectures," noted Kenschaft, quoting from a Girton administrator, "and as the daughter of a Congregationalist minister, she was probably poor, but she could go as a chaperone to students without paying."
Scott received her bachelor of science degree in mathematics from the University of London in 1882. She attended Cambridge for nine years, but Cambridge did not award degrees to women until 1948. She also lectured at Girton until 1894. Her studies concentrated on algebraic geometry, specifically, analyzing singularities in algebraic curves. Scott was the first British woman and the second woman in the world to be awarded a doctoral degree in this field.
Started Bryn Mawr Career
Scott left England for the United States in 1885. That year, the Society of Friends opened Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. It was the first women's college to offer graduate degrees. Cayley's recommendation helped Scott get a teaching appointment. The college's executive committee noted in its discussion of hiring Scott that Cayley had given her "a high recommendation for her attainments and her capacity for original work. [The] Mistress of Girton College testifies to C.A. Scott's popularity as a teacher, her success in organizing the mathematical department of the College, and her personal courtesy and friendliness to students." The report added that she "has two defects-she is decidedly hard of hearing, and is in delicate health. Yet neither of these has thus far proved a bar to her being a really able teacher."
Scott joined the faculty as an associate professor of mathematics, the only woman on the six-person faculty when the college opened. She soon became instrumental in beefing up the school's admissions criteria. Scott pushed for entering students to have basic competency in mathematics, including courses in arithmetic, algebra— including studies of quadratic equations and geometrical progressions—and plane geometry. Those students unable to pass admissions examinations in solid geometry and trigonometry were required to pass classes on these subjects prior to graduation.
Scott became a professor of mathematics in 1888. In 1891, she became an active member of the New York Mathematical Society (later the American Mathematical Society).
In a letter she wrote to the president of Bryn Mawr in 1918, her conservative upbringing was apparent: "Now I object very much to smoking by women… . But also I hold a strong objection to any discrimination between members of the teaching staff as men or women… . I grant that the example is bad for the students; but I am not convinced that the boils that may arise from this discrimination are not fully as serious. May I add that I think fully as undesirable an example is set to the students by certain foolish young women on our teaching staff whose 'make up' is so conspicuous? I certainly was taken aback the other day to see one of these, in our Faculty Cloakroom, renewing the make-up of the face between two classes."
Scott founded the College Entrance Examination Board and was its chief examiner from 1902 to 1903. The policies she established have changed little since their adoption. Scott received Bryn Mawr's first endowed chair in 1909.
Key Contributions to Mathematics
Scott published An Introductory Account of Certain Modern Ideas and Methods in Plane Analytical Geometry in 1894. This textbook was very important in its field. As Kenschaft explained, the book covered "such then recent concepts as groups, subgroups, invariants and covariants, and her treatment of projective geometry…. Since analytic geometry played a far more important role in the college curriculum then than now, the book had enormous impact… . Scott's smaller book on 'school' geometry, which appeared in 1907, was not as successful because its innovations were not adopted by the mathematical public."
She also contributed heavily to the then-new field of algebraic geometry through her work on singularities in algebraic curves. "Her specialty was interpreting all possible geometric manifestations of particular algebraic expressions of degree higher than two; that is, describing plane curves that were neither linear nor conics," wrote Kenschaft.
Scott was named co-editor of the American Journal of Mathematics in 1899. She held the post until two years after her retirement. She also served on the Council of the American Mathematical Society and was its vice-president in 1905. Scott was active in various European mathematical societies including the London Mathematical Society and Deutsche Mathematiker-Vereinigung.
Throughout her career, Scott had an impressive amount of published articles, including eight papers published in European journals between 1896 and 1906. Her work was also cited frequently. Among Scott's most notable achievements was her paper "A Proof of Noether's Fundamental Theorem," published in 1900 in a European mathematics journal.
Scott's development of the mathematics program at Bryn Mawr into one that enjoyed a worldwide reputation was among her leading achievements. She was reportedly an excellent teacher who "had the rare gift of lucid explanation combined with an intuitive perception of just what the student could grasp," according to Isabel Maddison, one of her students, quoted in Notable American Women, 1607-1950. "Nor did she spare any effort to help a stupid student who really tried, though she was ruthless with the lazy or casual." Scott's reputation attracted other female mathematicians to the school, including Emmy Noether and Anna Pell Wheeler. In one poll, her peers ranked her 14th among the world's leading mathematicians.
Little is known about Scott outside her professional life. According to Notable Scientists: From 1900 to the Present, her "own personal life was … circumspect, clouded further by the fact that all her personal correspondence was apparently disposed of or lost."
At first, she lived on the Bryn Mawr campus in a small apartment lined with her collection of books. Scott, who never married, eventually rented a house from the college, where she lived for 31 years. Her cousin Eliza Nevin stayed with her as a housekeeper and companion.
Despite Scott's role as a trailblazer for women in colleges, she was not a staunch feminist. She believed men would give credit as due to intelligent women and did not want women's education to differ from men's.
"A friendship of peoples is the outcome of personal relations. A life's work such as that of Professor Charlotte Angas Scott is worth more to the world than many anxious efforts of diplomatists," said Alfred North Whitehead, the renowned English philosopher, speaking in 1922 at a meeting of the American Mathematical Society held in Scott's honor at Bryn Mawr. An estimated 70 former students and an equal number of members of the American Mathematical Society gathered for the event. It was Whitehead's first appearance in the United States, and he had reportedly turned down requests to speak at Columbia and Harvard during his visit, saying that he did not want to detract from the celebration for Scott. Whitehead said Scott "is a great example of the universal brotherhood of civilisations."
Returned to England
Scott retired from her teaching career in 1925. After her retirement, she stayed on until her last doctoral student graduated. That student, Marguerite Lehr, succeeded Scott on the staff. Scott then spent her time traveling, visiting family and colleagues, and mentoring young women mathematicians. Eventually she returned to England.
Rheumatoid arthritis caused some health problems for Scott, as did a worsening deafness. When her doctor advised her to take up gardening to improve her health, Scott cultivated a new species of chrysanthemum. She also started playing golf.
Scott died on November 10, 1931, in Cambridge, England, at the age of 73. She was buried in a family plot in St. Giles's Churchyard next to Nevin, who had died in 1928. Her textbook on analytical geometry was reissued in 1961 as Projective Methods in Plane Analytical Geometry.
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