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Portrait of Yale’s Pioneering Women PhDs

March 14, 2016

The Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the oldest graduate school in North America, was founded in 1847. In 1861, it awarded the first three PhD degrees granted in the United States. Just over thirty years later, in 1892, the Graduate School admitted 23 women as students in full standing, and in 1894, the first seven women graduated with PhD degrees.

The Yale Women Faculty Forum (WFF) will unveil a portrait of those trailblazing scholars and scientists on April 5 in Sterling Memorial Library. At 3:30 p.m., Brooklyn-based artist Brenda Zlamany and Yale Chief Research Archivist Judith Schiff will speak in the Sterling Memorial Lecture Room. At 4:45 p.m., President Peter Salovey and members of the faculty will speak in the nave, where the painting will be displayed. A reception will follow.

Co-chairing the project are Paula Kavathas, professor of Laboratory Medicine and Immunobiology and chair of the Women Faculty Forum, and Laura Wexler, professor of American Studies and Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies.        

Who were Yale’s first women PhDs, and what became of them after they graduated? When WFF Postdoctoral Associate Liena Vayzman and Postgraduate Associate Ruth Vaughan conducted archival research a few years ago, they found out.

Elizabeth Deering Hanscom (PhD 1894, English) was generally considered to be the first woman to earn a PhD from Yale, but that bit of conventional wisdom turned out to be based on the fact that Hanscom's name came first in the alphabet, so technically she was first, but only technically. The others were Margaretta Palmer (Astronomy), Charlotte Fitch Roberts (Chemistry), Cornelia H.B. Rogers (Romance Languages), Sara Bulkley Rogers (History), Mary Augusta Scott (English), and Laura Johnson Wylie (English). 

Deering Hanscom came to Yale with a BA and MA from Boston University. Her dissertation analyzed the Middle English poem Piers Plowman, by William Langland, but at Smith College, where she taught English for over 35 years, she was best known for teaching American literature. When she died in 1960 at the age of 94, the New York Times obituary said she “introduced the study of American Literature at Smith College in 1899, at a time when the subject was not studied generally in American institutions of higher learning.”

Palmer earned her BA from Vassar College in 1887 and was hired to be an assistant in the Yale Observatory, where she worked until she was able to enroll in the Graduate School five years later. Her dissertation, titled “Determination of the Orbit of Comet 1847 VI,” was a study of the comet discovered by Maria Mitchell, her professor at Vassar. After graduation, Palmer continued to work at Yale. When the Observatory was closed in 1918, she worked part time in the Yale library classifying scientific and mathematical books and part time on her research.  

Roberts graduated from Wellesley College in 1880. Yale Chemistry Professor Frank Gooch called her book, The Development and Present Aspects of Stereochemistry (1896), “the clearest exposition of which we have knowledge of the principles and conditions” of the field, which studies the relative spatial arrangement of atoms in molecules. Roberts became a full professor at Wellesley in 1896 and devoted much of her scholarship to the historical development of her field. She was described by the Wellesley Alumnae Magazine as “one of the pioneers in America of the ‘New Chemistry.’” 

Another alumna of Wellesley College, Cornelia Hephzibah Bulkley Rogers, was an expert in Old Spanish as well as Italian and French. Her dissertation, written in Spanish, was titled “Sinalefa, sineresis, e hatio en los romances del Cid.” A 1920 Yale publication about alumnae of the Graduate School pointed out that “the very first candidate for the Doctor’s degree in Romance Languages at Yale was a woman…. Miss Cornelia Rogers of Bridgeport. Miss Rogers began her studies here in 1892, and proved to be exceptionally well prepared for them.” She spent her professional life teaching Romance languages at Vassar and providing translations for the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

Cornelia's sister, Sara Bulkley Rogers, was also a member of that first cohort. She received her BA from Columbia University in 1889 through the Collegiate Course for Women, which later became Barnard College, and then earned a masters degree in history from Cornell. Her Yale dissertation was titled “The Rise of Civil Government and Federation in Early New England.” She was a writer of fiction, and her stories were published in the New York Evening Post, the Commercial Advertiser, and other periodicals. Her 1897 novel, Life's Way, was published in London by Bentley & Son.

Before coming to Yale, Scott earned a BA and masters degree from Vassar. Her dissertation was titled “The Elizabethan Drama, Especially in Its Relation to the Italians of the Renaissance,” and she remained immersed in the scholarship of that period all her life. Her published works include an annotated bibliography – Elizabethan Translations from the Italian – and an edition of The Essays of Francis Bacon. She contributed essays to The Dial and other literary and academic journals. In 1900, she presented “The Book of the Courtier: a Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice” at the Modern Language Association's December meeting, held at the University of Pennsylvania. In a published version of the paper she described herself as a “Sometime Fellow of Yale University” and “Instructor in English at Smith College.” 

Wylie, the third of the group to earn a PhD in English, was graduated from Vassar in 1877. She taught Latin and English at Packer Institute in Brooklyn for fourteen years prior to pursuing graduate work at Yale when the opportunity opened up. Her dissertation, “Studies in the Evolution of English Criticism,” was published by Ginn & Company in 1894 “at the expense of the University, in the hope that it may be useful to other students of the period which it covers,” wrote Yale English Professor Albert S. Cook in the preface. Wylie was the longtime partner of Gertrude Buck, with whom she led the Department of English at Vassar during the Progressive Era. She was on the faculty at Vassar from 1897 until 1924 and was a leader in the women’s suffrage movement, serving as president of the Dutchess County (NY) Suffrage Organization from 1910-18.

Project co-chair Kavathas says, “The Women Faculty Forum commissioned this portrait of the first women to receive a Yale PhD not only to increase the number of portraits of women on campus, but also, and more importantly, to commemorate the admission of women to Yale’s Graduate School in 1892. As we see today, it was a wise decision.”