February 20, 2009

The Remarkable Miss Mullikin

The name Anna Margaret Mullikin (1893-1975) doesn't appear on the MAA's "Women of Mathematics" poster. Her biography is not among those posted on the Agnes Scott College pages featuring women mathematicians.

"She is virtually unknown today, but . . . we believe she deserves greater recognition," Thomas L. Bartlow of Villanova University and David E. Zitarelli of Temple University contend in the February American Mathematical Monthly. Their article, "Who Was Miss Mullikin?", presents a compelling case for lauding the accomplishments of this mathematician and high school mathematics teacher.

Mullikin was the third Ph.D. student of R.L. Moore (1882-1974), a prominent figure in 20th-century mathematics who founded his own school of topology and advocated a teaching style that encourages students to solve problems using their own skills. She was the first of Moore's students to write a dissertation on topology, a pioneering work that dealt with connected sets.

Mullikin's dissertation was her only published mathematical research, which appeared in 1922. Nonetheless, her results had a "catalytic effect" on the fledgling field of point-set topology, Bertlow and Zitarelli point out. Mullikin's work "inspired a decade of intense investigations leading to applications and generalizations by two of the leading schools of topology at that time."

Mullikin obtained her A.B. degree in 1915 from Goucher College in Baltimore. She taught mathematics for three years before beginning graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania, where she quickly came to Moore's attention. When Moore left in 1920 for the University of Texas, he arranged to have her appointed as an instructor so that she could complete her thesis under his guidance. After her instructorship ended, Mullikin returned to the University of Pennsylvania to complete requirements for her degree.

Mullikin's dissertation, "Certain theorems relating to plane connected point sets," appeared in the September 1922 Transactions of the American Mathematical Society.

After completing her degree, Mullikin worked for the Philadelphia school district as a high school teacher, ending up at Germantown High School, where she taught until she retired in 1959. "During this 36-year tenure she earned a reputation as a demanding, sympathetic, and effective teacher of mathematics," Bartlow and Zitarelli note.

Mullikin "identified and encouraged students of strong mathematical ability, taught a meticulous and orderly approach to mathematics to all hers students, and tailored her lessons to the abilities of individual students," the authors conclude. "Although her pupils were unaware of her earlier exploits and some of them did not even know that she held a Ph.D., they benefited by experiencing firsthand a brilliant and serious mathematical mind at work."

Bartlow and Zitarelli provide many more details of Mullikin's life and career in their article. Belated recognition of Mullikin's mathematical work also comes in a new book, Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 Ph.D.s by Judy Green of Marymount University and Jeanne LaDuke of DePaul University, published by the American Mathematical Society.

Bartlow and Zitarelli mention three other women who received their mathematics degrees in 1921-1922. Margaret Buchanan (1885-1965) graduated from West Virginia University, then did her dissertation at Bryn Mawr College under Anna Pell Wheeler (1883-1966). She returned to teach at West Virginia for the rest of her career. Claribell Kendall (1889-1965) graduated from the University of Colorado, did her dissertation under Ernest Wilczynski (1876-1932) at the University of Chicago, then taught at Colorado for the remainder of her career. Eleanor Pairman (1896-1973) went to Radcliffe College, where she obtained her Ph.D. under George David Birkhoff (1884-1944). She married fellow graduate student Bancroft Huntington Brown in 1922, and Brown ended up at Dartmouth College. Pairman enjoyed teaching but had little opportunity to do so, trapped in a males-only college community.

Pairman "is the only one who married and the only one who published anything other than her own dissertation," Bartlow and Zitarelli remark. "The others, like Mullikin, remained single and embarked on teaching careers, albeit at their home universities."


Bartlow, T.L., and D.E. Zitarelli. 2009. Who was Miss Mullikin? American Mathematical Monthly 116(February):99-114. Preprint.

Green, J., and J. LaDuke. 2009. Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 Ph.D.s. American Mathematical Society. Supplementary material.

No comments: