September 24, 1862 - September 6, 1951
Winifred Edgerton, the first American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics, was born in Ripon, Wisconsin. She was a direct descendent of Elder William Brewster of Plymouth Colony. She received her early education from private tutors before earning her B.A. degree from Wellesley College in 1883. After some work at Harvard she was allowed to study mathematics and astronomy at Columbia University. At the end of her second year she petitioned to receive a Ph.D. degree, having fulfilled the required credits and written an original thesis titled "Multiple Integrals" that dealt with geometric interpretations of multiple integrals and translations and relations of various systems of coordinates. Her work in mathematical astronomy included computation of the orbit of the comet of 1883. Despite the support of President Barnard, a campaigner for women's education, the board of trustees refused her application. Barnard suggested that Edgerton personally talk to each trustee. This effort proved successful and at the next meeting the board unanimously voted to award her the Ph.D. in mathematics, which she received in 1886 with highest honors. The scrapbook of the history of the Wellesley mathematics department contains the following anecdote:
In 1886 Winifred Edgerton '83 took the doctor's degree in Mathematics at Columbia, the first Wellesley graduate to receive that degree, and probably the first woman in the country to take it in mathematics. At the time we were greatly impressed and pleased to learn of the results of an effort on the part of some Columbia men to make things hard for this undesired student. They asked their professor to use the hardest possible text in their course in Celestial Mechanics. The book chosen was Watson's (Celestial Mechanics), which Miss Hayes' class, including Winifred Edgerton, had used at Wellesley."
Mary Williams writes that "The granting of this degree was the outstanding event of the 1886 Columbia Commencement. When she was given her diploma, according to newspaper reports, there was a 'terrible round of applause which the gallant students in the body of the house kept up fully two minutes.'" On the fiftieth anniversary of her graduation from Wellesley, a portrait of Winifred Edgerton Merrill was presented to Columbia and now hangs in one of the academic buildings with the inscription, "She opened the door." Merrill was also a member of a committee that petitioned Columbia University for the founding of Barnard College in 1889, New York's first secular institution to award women the liberal arts degree.
In 1887 Edgerton married Frederick Merrill, an 1885 graduate of Columbia who received his Ph.D. from Columbia in 1890. He served as the New York State geologist from 1899 to 1904 and as the director of the New York State Museum before his death in 1916. They had four children.
Merrill taught mathematics at various institutions for several years after her graduation from Columbia. She had been offered a position as professor of mathematics at Wellesley, but declined because of her impending marriage. In 1906 she founded the Oaksmere School for Girls which she directed until 1928. It became well known for its high scholastic standards. A branch of the school was established in Paris in 1912. In 1928 Merrill discontinued the school and moved to New York City. She wrote many articles on education for journals and was a popular speaker of educational topics. She served for some years as alumna trustee of Wellesley College.
In her papers on Winifred Merrill, Mary Williams quotes the following letter that appeared on September 20, 1951, in The New York Times shortly after Merrill's death:
All those interested in educational progress owe a debt of gratitude to the late Mrs. Winifred Edgerton Merrill...one of the group of five who submitted the first proposal for a woman's college affiliated with Columbia University....Earlier Mrs. Merrill herself received the first Columbia University degree ever granted to a woman, earned with highest honors in the "masculine" field of mathematics and astronomy....I treasure an unforgettable memory of her keen mind and gallant spirit, her graciousness, and her kindling interest in current events. Though almost eighty years 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.
Photo Credit: Photograph is used courtesy of Wellesley College Archives