An interesting bit of history

This, from the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the University of Notre Dame, was in my facebook newsfeed this evening and I thought it would be of interest to our readers:

Sr. Mary Frederick Eggleston, C.S.C.


“Today we wanted to take a moment to honor Sr. Mary Frederick Eggleston (1893-1975), pictured on the left, who was the first person to receive a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. She (aptly enough) worked in philosophy of religion, graduated magna cum laude in 1934, and her dissertation is available electronically [here].”

Her dissertation is titled, “Some Effects of the Theory of Evolution on the Philosophy of Religion.” What I find especially interesting about this, is that Notre Dame didn’t become a co-ed university until 1972.

Reading this bit of history reminds me of when I first learned of Ilse Rosenthal Schneider, while reading about Einstein’s philosophy of science: It’s a nice reminder of the continual presence and consistent intellectual contributions of women to our profession, even when and where men seem to take center stage in our history.

14 thoughts on “An interesting bit of history

  1. Nice reflection, Philodaria.

    Notre Dame’s undergraduate program has been coeducational since 1972. But women have enrolled in Notre Dame’s graduate programs as far back as the University’s online archives of commencement programs reaches, which is to say at least since 1920 and presumably for some time before that. Indeed, during that era a significant majority of Notre Dame master’s degrees were apparently conferred on women. They were primarily women religious, such as Sister Mary Frederick, but not exclusively so; thus, e.g., in the 1921 commencement program, we find a Master of Arts in philosophy conferred upon “Miss Bertha Regina Grosswege, Avilla, Indiana” (Dissertation: “The Universal Idea versus the Generic Image”).

    Arguably fitting for an institution where a woman has always taken center stage in its history.

  2. Nemo, that’s right but I’m not sure Notre Dame’s graduate programs were technically co-educational, even if they were in practice. I’ve tried to find information about this, and all I’ve been able to come up with is what the post says: 1972 is when it became official.

    I did find some other interesting information though while I was looking, e.g., Mary Whiton Calkins (president of the APA in 1918) studied at Harvard before it was co-ed, completed all the requirements for a PhD, but was denied the degree because she was a woman.

  3. Kathryn,

    After some digging, here, I think, is at least a partial answer, from the Notre Dame Scholastic of September 29, 1917, in an article reporting on Notre Dame’s Diamond Jubilee celebration, which had taken place in June 1917, in the throes of the First World War:

    “While the published stories of the jubilee doings have more or less done justice to the principal features of the celebration, little or no mention has been made of an innovation or two which characterized Notre Dame’s seventy-fifth commencement. For the first time in her history the University conferred degrees in course on women … There was an enthusiastic outburst of applause in Washington Hall when the names of Sister Francis Jerome and Sister Lucretia … were read out as recipients of the M.A. and M.Sc. degrees[.]” (emphasis mine)

    Click to access VOL_0051_ISSUE_0001.pdf

  4. Interesting indeed, Philodaria. I was trying to find out what happened to Sister Francis Jerome, C.S.C., who was ostensibly the first woman (thanks to alphabetical order) to receive a degree from the University of Notre Dame way back in 1917. I found the following obituary published in the “Alumni Deaths” section of the February 1948 Notre Dame alumni magazine:

    “SISTER FRANCIS JEROME, C.S.C., M.A., ’27, religious superior of St. Mary’s College, died Jan. 5, [1948] … Born Susan A. O’Laughlin in Seneca, Ill., in 1877, Sister Francis Jerome was professed in 1902. She taught at St. Mary’s and from 1931 to 1947 was vice president of the college. She was also head of the classical language department and was appointed religious superior in 1945. In addition to the master’s degree from Notre Dame, Sister Francis Jerome held a doctor of philosophy degree from Fordham.”

    Click to access VOL_0026_ISSUE_0001.pdf

    Hard to tell for certain if this is the same Sister Francis Jerome, C.S.C. who received (according to the 1917 record) her M.A. from Notre Dame in ’17, since the obituary says ’27. I’m thinking there’s a decent likelihood that it is the same person and there’s simply an error in the obituary (or some other explanation, e.g. she received two Notre Dame master’s degrees in different years).

    Regardless of whether this is the same Sister Francis Jerome – I suspect it is – it’s still interesting that the death announcement of this distinguished alumna appears alongside those of other deceased alums (including another woman) in the publication, with her degree and year after her name just as for every other alum, in a manner that suggest that in 1948 it was already the most natural thing in the world that women enrolled in and earned degrees from Notre Dame’s graduate programs. I guess that had been the case for a little over 30 years by then; long enough for some of the women grads to start dying of old age.

  5. I believe I’ve just located a record of the award by Notre Dame of a Ph.D in philosophy to a woman that predates the one referred to in the OP — in which case, the University’s own Center for Philosophy of Religion was mistaken there! According to the commencement program dated June 14, 1925, three Ph.Ds were awarded that day (two of the three went to women), and one was to Sister Mary Verda in philosophy (Dissertation: “Neo-Realism in the Light of Scholasticism”). She had received her M.A. in philosophy, also from Notre Dame, four years earlier according to the 1921 commencement program.

    More anecdotes: The thesis that earned Sister Francis Jerome – a classicist – her groundbreaking 1917 Notre Dame master’s degree? “The Position of Woman in Greek Literature”.

    She earned the degree the same day in June 1917 that Sister Mary Lucretia earned a M.Sc. in chemistry; they seem to have been the first two.

    Finally, I believe I’ve identified (i) the first woman to earn a Ph.D in any subject from Notre Dame (Sister Mary Eleanore, English, 1923, Dissertation: “The Literary Essay in English” (published in book form by Ginn & Co. that same year)) and (ii) the first woman to earn a Ph.D in the natural sciences from Notre Dame (Sister Mary Aquinas, Chemistry, 1928, Dissertation: “The Catalytic Condensation of Acetylene with Resorcinol”).

    Trailblazers all.

  6. That’s fascinating, and perplexing. Notre Dame keeps records of MA and PhD Thesis/Dissertations, and I can’t find anything from Sr. Mary Verda–but it’s also not clear from the commencement program she did graduate with a PhD from the philosophy department in particular. She received a Doctor of Philosophy, but it could have been from another department; the program doesn’t say.

  7. Kathryn, you’re right that there’s a chance that Sister Mary Verda’s PhD came from another department. On the other hand, the 1921 ND commencement program definitely shows her receiving a master’s from the ND philosophy department. What are the odds that Sister Mary Verda subsequently left the philosophy department, joined another ND department (not Theology, which was not giving out PhDs at that time I believe based on the commencement records) and got them to award her a PhD after writing a doctoral dissertation on Neo-Realism and Scholasticism? Probably pretty low, I have to think.

  8. I was just thinking if they hadn’t officially begun the PhD program yet, they might have granted her the degree with out it being in philosophy per se, though the work is clearly philosophical.

  9. Kathryn,

    I see what you mean. That’s possible. I didn’t see any PhD’s in philosophy granted prior to that, so it may be that the department’s doctoral program was just coming together.

    In the meantime, I found a 1923 reference in Scholastic to a woman receiving a Notre Dame natural science PhD earlier than 1928: Sister Mary Lucretia, PhD in Organic Chemistry, awarded during the summer session 1923(!). One supposes that that is the same Sister Mary Lucretia who was one of the first two women to receive a Notre Dame degree back in 1917. The fact that her PhD conferral was during the summer (many, though not all, of the nuns who studied at ND in those days did so during summer terms) may account for why I did not notice it in the commencement programs. Mea culpa.

    Here’s an article on the nearly 100-year history of women students enrolled at at Notre Dame:

    Interesting factoids from the article:

    – By 1940, there were already 750 Notre Dame alumnae.

    – 8% of all Notre Dame graduates between 1917 and 1971 (the last year before the undergraduate program became fully coeducational) were nuns.

    The article confirms our earlier detective work about the University first conferring degrees on women on June 11, 1917.

  10. Nemo, did you, by chance, come across what might be the first phd at notre dame? I’m curious what it was, but haven’t gone through all of the programs yet. I’m really curious what other institutions might have been conferring so many graduate degrees to women at the time.

  11. Kathryn,

    The earliest reference I’ve found in the Scholastic archives to the degree of “Doctor of Philosophy” being awarded to anyone by Notre Dame was in the commencement issue of June 1912, which indicated that the degree was awarded to Guillermo Patterson, Jr. The department wasn’t mentioned (although the thesis title was), but Patterson was an inorganic chemist who would later gain renown in his native Panama as “the Father of Panamanian Chemistry”.

    The digital Scholastic archives are searchable back to 1867, by the way, and at some relatively early point the magazine started reprinting the commencement rolls, so that’s probably the best place to look (rather than the digital archive of commencement programs, which as I’m sure you saw, only goes back to 1920).

    I’ve read that the first American university to award a PhD to a woman was Boston University in 1877. However, because several Catholic universities made big early pushes to provide graduate education to nuns from teaching orders (of whom there were a lot at the time), it wouldn’t surprise me if they outpaced other American universities in terms of raw numbers, and/or proportion, of graduate degrees awarded to women up through the first few decades of the 20th century.

    The Catholic University of America appears to have been a few years ahead of Notre Dame in this respect; it awarded its first PhD to a woman in 1914, and its first PhD from the School of Philosophy to a woman in 1915.



Comments are closed.