October 22, 1898 - December 14, 1987
Marguerite Lehr was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 22, 1898,the oldest of five children of a grocer. She attended the public schools of Baltimore. Ironically, the first and only subject she ever failed in school was the first quarter of algebra, but, as she later said, "I could be docile and learn rules, so I passed the second quarter with a 95." She also once remarked that while growing up, she "didn't know it was kooky for a girl to be hooked on mathematics."
Lehr was the only one in her family to go to college. She attended Goucher College where she specialized in mathematics and took classes from Clara Bacon. She was a member of the mathematics club at Goucher and in 1918 gave a talk to the club on "geometry of four dimensions." After graduating in 1919 with a B.A. degree in mathematics, she went to Bryn Mawr College as a graduate student and Reader for Professor Charlotte A. Scott. She had originally planned to attend Johns Hopkins for graduate work, but the job offer as assistant to Professor Scott reversed that decision. As her assistant, Lehr would answer questions in Scott's classes and hold office hours for her since Scott was by then completely deaf. Lehr also studied with Professor Scott as well as with Professors Anna J. Pell and W. B. Huff. She was Scott's last Ph.D. student, receiving her degree in mathematics and physics in 1925 with a dissertation on "The plane quintic with five cusps." This was published in the American Journal of Mathematics, April 1927, pp197-214 [Abstract].
Lehr had been awarded the President M. Carey Thomas European Fellowship from Bryn Mawr in 1920, but she deferred using the fellowship until 1923 when, in conjunction with an AAUW European fellowship, she spent the 1923-1924 academic year at the University of Rome, Italy, studying algebraic geometry. While she was in Rome, Lehr was appointed an instructor in mathematics at Bryn Mawr College, a position she accepted upon her return in 1924. She remained at Bryn Mawr for the rest of her professional life, advancing to associate in 1929, to assistant professor in 1935, to associate professor in 1937, and to professor of mathematics in 1955. She did additional post-graduate work at the Johns Hopkins University (in 1931-32), at l'Institute Poincaré in Paris (in 1949-50), and at Princeton University (in 1956-57).
During World War II, Lehr taught mathematics in the U.S. Office of Information's war-training program for photogrammetrists at Bryn Mawr, and under the wartime V-12 program she taught for one summer term at Swarthmore College. Her main interest after 1945 was probability theory and its applications, and mathematics education, particularly the use of television to teach mathematics. From October, 1953, to January, 1954, Professor Lehr conducted a highly successful series of television classes on a Philadelphia TV program called University of the Air. In Lehr's view, the talks, called "Invitation to Mathematics," were designed "to show the average viewer the intention of mathematics...as a natural and power aid toward ordering our experience." As part of the course, Lehr prepared a course syllabus of abstracts and readings; the TV studio circulated the semester syllabus (for twenty-five cents!). Her syllabus began:
Most people associate mathematics with getting answers or giving proofs, and it is easy to see why. Mathematics does set up good rules for getting quick answers, and does accumulate good reasons for trusting those rules. But the life of the enterprise is inquiry; as we learn how to ask good questions, answers come, and often more powerfully than when we strain for them. So these talks are concerned with raising questions - questions of practical import or pure curiosity - questions about number, space, pattern, logic, which mathematicians know have paid off in increasing our comprehension of the world we live in. You are wrong if you think questions of this kind are special, technical, occurring only to a few gifted people. Almost every small child does things, and asks about things, which touch such mathematical sides of experience. He may be hoping for a rule (what to do); he may be groping for a reason (why it works); mathematics itself swings between rules and reasons. In these talks, children's casual remarks will often be used, for illumination or to surprise you into an attitude of observant curiosity. Even the dictionary, under "mathematic - fr. Greek" gives first mathematikos - disposed to learn, and only second mathemata - things learned.
The topics of her lectures reveal the types of questions Lehr wanted to investigate with her audience:
This was the era of live TV; the talks were unrehearsed! But this was also the first experiment of a sustained kind with mathematics on television, concerned not with the techniques of mathematics but with motivating the concepts of the current field. It also make Lehr one of the country's experts on presenting mathematical programs on television. She was invited to appear at the national meetings of the Mathematical Association of America and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and was a member of a panel discussing "pedagogical problems of math via television" at Princeton University in 1954. In April of 1954 Lehr received the Goucher College Award in recognition of achievement and service that reflected honor upon Goucher College. At the time of the celebration, the president of Goucher said about her:
"Able scholar and inspiring teacher, cherishing the best in classical education but not afraid to explore and utilize new ideas and methods, you have made notable contributions to education not only by helping others to understand the nature of mathematics and its role in the modern world, but also by demonstrating and explaining the discipline of scholarship and its intrinsic value."
She became a member of the MAA Committee on Film Project which produced a series of instructional films in an effort to reach teachers and students who had no access to the centers of live current activity in mathematics. In 1957 NBC hired Lehr as a consultant for a television series on mathematics with guests such as Emil Artin, H.M.S. Coxeter, Saunders MacLean, William Feller, Richard Courant, and many other outstanding mathematicians and teachers.
During 1958-59, Lehr held one of six part-time lectureships under the visiting lecturer program of the MAA, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The Aim of this program was to develop a liaison between advanced college work and current research in mathematics. Lecturers such as Lehr visited colleges that were not in close contact with research centers. During the year Lehr traveled to New England, northern New York, Ohio, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota.
Marguerite Lehr retired from Bryn Mawr College in 1967. Upon her retirement she received the Christine R. and Mary F. Lindback Award "in recognition of her brilliance as a teacher, for which generations of students will remember her." She was a member of the American Mathematical Society, the Mathematical Association of America, the Institute of Mathematical Statistics, and the Biometric Society, and had served on the awards committees of the International Federation of University Women and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. In an interview with Pat Kenshaft, Lehr remarked that "the richest experience of my life was the eight years I spent interviewing candidates for the Woodrow Wilson graduate fellowships."
Publications of Marguerite Lehr