Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Graduate School News and Events

Pioneering Women PhDs to be Commemorated in
Sterling Library Portrait

Yale awarded the first PhD degrees in the United States to three men in 1861, and for many years the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences remained an all-male bastion. In 1892, both women and men were allowed to enroll in PhD programs at Yale and two years later, in 1894, the first seven women graduated with PhD degrees. The entire graduating cohort that year totaled 21 students.

The Yale Women Faculty Forum (WFF) is currently leading an initiative to commission a portrait of those trailblazing women which will hang in the nave of Sterling Memorial Library. The artist will intertwine elements representing the women’s fields of study: chemistry, astronomy, English literature, history, and Romance languages and literatures. Co-chairing the project are Laura Wexler, professor of American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies, and Paula Kavathas, professor and associate chair of academic affairs for Laboratory Medicine and professor of immunobiology and genetics.

“The images we see of women at Yale tell us who we were and are, and what we are expected to become. To hang a portrait of these barrier-breaking women in a place of honor in Sterling Memorial Library will expand our sense of all these things,” says Wexler.

Who were Yale’s first women PhDs, and what became of them after they graduated? WFF Postdoctoral Associate Liena Vayzman and Postgraduate Associate Ruth Vaughan did archival research and managed to unearth information and photographs of nearly every one.

Elizabeth Deering Hanscom (PhD 1894, English) was generally considered to be the first woman to earn a PhD from Yale, but on further study – and with help from Yale archivist Judith Schiff – that bit of conventional wisdom turned out to be based on the fact that Hanscom's name fell earlier in the alphabet than the other pioneering women. 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. Her book, The Development and Present Aspects of Stereochemistry (1896), was esteemed by Yale Chemistry Professor Frank Gooch as “the clearest exposition of which we have knowledge of the principles and conditions of stereochemistry.”

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 Wellesley’s 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,” namely, 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 on “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 bachelor’s and master’s degrees 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 titled 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 Courtyer: a Possible Source of Benedick and Beatrice” at the Modern Language Association's December meeting, which was held that year 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, 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,” as Yale English Professor Albert S. Cook wrote 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 New York’s Dutchess County Suffrage Organization from 1910 to 1918. After women gained the vote, she helped found the Women’s City and County Club, serving as its president from 1918 to 1928.

Project co-chair Kavathas says, “The continuing contribution towards scholarship and education of these first women after obtaining their PhD affirms why accepting women into the Graduate School was the right thing to do. The portrait will celebrate these women’s achievements and also the contributions of all women scholars who have had the privilege of attending Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.”

The Yale Women Faculty Forum has initiated a fundraising campaign for the portrait project. Further information on the project and the fundraising campaign can be found on WFF’s website.

Elizabeth Deering Hanscom (photo courtesy of the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College)