Agnes Scott College

Pauline Sperry

Pauline Sperry

March 5, 1885 - September 24, 1967

Pauline Sperry was born in Peabody, Massachusetts to Willard Sperry, a Congregational minister, and Henrietta Leoroyd Sperry. She studied at Smith College from 1904 to 1906, where she earned her B.A. degree and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. After a one-year break teaching mathematics at Hamilton Institute in New York City, Sperry returned to Smith for graduate work in mathematics and music, receiving a master's degree in music in 1908. Between 1908 and 1912 she taught at Smith College as an instructor in mathematics.

In 1912 Sperry used a traveling fellowship from Smith College to begin graduate studies at the University of Chicago under the direction of the geometer Ernest Julius Wilczynski. Her work was in the area of projective differential geometry. In 1914 she received her master's degree in mathematics with a thesis "On the theory of a one-to-two correspondence with geometric illustrations." Two years later she completed her Ph.D. thesis on "Properties of a certain projectively defined two-parameter family of curves on a general surface," which was published in the American Journal of Mathematics, Vol. 40 (1918), 213-224 [Excerpt].

Sperry returned to Smith College for the 1916-1917 academic year as an assistant professor of mathematics, but moved to the University of California at Berkeley in 1917 as an instructor. In 1923 she became the first woman to be promoted to assistant professor in the mathematics department at Berkeley. She was promoted to associate professor in 1931. Sperry's specialty was geometry and she taught many of the geometry courses at Berkeley. These included lower division courses such as Analytic Geometry and Introduction to Projective Geometry, required of all candidates for the certificate of completion of the teacher training curriculum in mathematics. Her upper level course on Advanced Analytic Geometry, restricted to honor students and graduates, was an introduction to modern methods in analytic geometry with lectures, outside reading and frequent reports by the class. Sperry regularly taught the graduate courses in Differential Geometry, Metric Differential Geometry (the application of the calculus to the metric theory of twisted curves and surfaces) and Projective Differential Geometry. But, of course, Sperry also taught her share of the service courses offered by most mathematics departments: trigonometry, college algebra, plane analytic geometry and calculus, solid analytic geometry and calculus, differential and integral calculus, and even the mathematical theory of investment.

Although Sperry never published another research mathematics paper after her Ph.D. dissertation, she did supervise five Ph.D. students at Berkeley between 1931 and 1949, all of whom went on to academic careers. In addition, in 1931 she published a Bibliography of Projective Differential Geometry. During the 1920's she wrote two textbooks, Short Course in Spherical Trigonometry and Plane Trigonometry (with H.E. Buchanan).

On March 25, 1949, during the McCarthy era of anti-communist hysteria that gripped the country, the Board of Regents of the University of California decided to adopt a loyalty oath to be signed by all members of the University's faculty and staff. This oath required a specific denial of membership in the Communist party or belief in organizations advocating overthrow of the national government. In July, 1950, thirty-one faculty members of the Berkeley and Los Angeles campuses of the University of California were dismissed by a two-vote majority of the Board of Regents for refusing to sign the required loyalty oath. Three of the dismissed professors were women; one was Pauline Sperry. As David Gardner writes in his book about the California oath controversy:

The irony was that not one of those dismissed was ever accused of being a Communist or in sympathy with any other organization allegedly subversive. Furthermore, each had been found by the Academic Senate Committee on Privilege and Tenure to be a competent scholar, an objective teacher, and untainted by disloyalty to the country. How the Regents of the University of California came to sever from the institution's service men and women against whom no charge of professional unfitness or personal disloyalty had been laid is an extraordinary study in futility.

On October 17, 1952, the California Supreme Court ruled that the state of California had pre-empted the field of loyalty oaths and that university personnel could not be required to execute any other loyalty oath other than that prescribed for all state employees. The court ordered the Regents to issue letters of appointment to the dismissed professors upon acceptance by them of the state enacted loyalty oath (known as the Levering oath). It was a hollow victory for the non-signers; the court passed no judgment on tenure rights, academic freedom, or political tests for appointment to academic positions.

Because Pauline Sperry had reached retirement age during the loyalty oath controversy, she was appointed Associate Professor of Mathematics Emeritus as of July 1, 1952. In 1956, after further litigation, the Regents granted her and the other non-signers back pay for the salary they lost as a result of their dismissal in 1950. In June, 1953, the president of the University of California, Robert G. Sproul, wrote Pauline Sperry a letter to "express our appreciation of the loyal and effective service you have given to the University." He went on to say:

In the course of the thirty-six years that have passed since you came to the Berkeley campus as an instructor in the Department of Mathematics, you have demonstrated exceptional ability as a teacher in a subject in which the quality of teaching can be responsible in large measure for the difference between brilliance and mediocrity in a student's work. A simulating guide, unsparing of self in your efforts to aid those in your charge, selfless also in your devotion to your Department and the University, you have made a contribution through your teaching that will be transmitted to future generations by those who have acquired acknowledge and received inspiration from you, while your contributions to scholarship is plain in the work of your doctoral students pursuing research in projective differential geometry--the field of your own special interest.

In response to Sproul's reference to "the recent unhappy break in the continuity of [her] long service to the University," Sperry replied to him

I think I can justly accept your tribute to my devotion to the interests of the University. Over all the years I have tried to put those interests as I saw them first and not least in the last years which I do not regard as a "break" in the "continuity" of my "long service", but perhaps as the crowning service...The greatest gift to mankind--the freedom of the mind--is in great peril. If we lost that we lose everything. The universities are its greatest bulwark. They are the first to be attacked. The battle is only just begun.

Sperry continued to be politically active after her retirement from teaching. She petitioned to ban testing of nuclear weapons and was involved with the American Civil Liberties Union and the League of Women Voters. She gave away money to help those with special needs. Sperry died in 1967 while living in a home for retired men and women in Pacific Grove, California.


  1. Fasanelli, Florence. "Pauline Sperry," in Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, Louise Grinstein and Paul Campbell, Editors, Greenwood Press, 1987.
  2. Fasanelli, Florence. "Pauline Sperry," in Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl, Editors, Greenwood Press (1998), 238-242.
  3. Archive materials, University of California Archives, The Bancroft Library.
  4. Gardner, David. The California Oath Controversy, University of California Press, 1967.
  5. Author Profile at zbMath
  6. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  7. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Photo Credit: Photograph is from the book Julia, A Life in Mathematics by Constance Reid and is used with permission of the author