Agnes Scott College

Mabel Schmeiser Barnes

Mabel Barnes

July 29, 1905 - February 22, 1993

Mabel Schmeiser was born in Wapello, Iowa. She always enjoyed mathematics, beginning with her education in a one-room country school in Iowa. She entered Cornell College, however, with the intention of majoring in Latin. Taking calculus changed her mind and she graduated from Cornell in 1926 with a B.A. degree in mathematics. She received her M.A. degree from the University of Wisconsin in 1928, and her Ph.D. from the Ohio State University in 1931 with a dissertation on "Some Properties Of Arbitrary Functions Concerning Approach To A Straight Line" under the direction of Henry Blumberg. This was published in Fundamenta Mathematicae, Vol. 22 (1934) [Abstract].

After graduation, a temporary job as acting department chair at Nebraska State Teachers College stretched into three years. In 1933 Schmeiser became one of two young women accepted into the first group of mathematicians at the newly opened Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (Anne Stafford was the other). At an AWM panel in 1988, Schmeiser said about this experience [1]:

"Even in remote Nebraska I heard about a place called the Institute for Advanced Study opening in far away Princeton. I applied for admission and was accepted. For some years the School of Mathematics was the only School of the Institute and was housed with the mathematics department in Fine Hall at Princeton. Soon after I arrived the Director of the School of Mathematics took me aside and warned me that Princeton was not accustomed to women in the halls of learning and I should make myself as inconspicuous as possible. However, otherwise I found a very friendly atmosphere and spent a valuable and enjoyable year there. Had I not gone east, I would not have met Olga Taussky as early as I fortunately did."

It was during her year at the Institute that Schmeiser met John Barnes, a Ph.D. graduate student in mathematics at Princeton. They were married a year later after Mabel spent time as a substitute math teacher in a New York City high school. Mabel moved to Massachusetts where her husband was an assistant professor at Tufts College. There she was able to attend the mathematics colloquia at Harvard University. Their son was born in 1936 and a daughter a few years later. Though she had no official position at Tufts, Barnes helped her husband by grading papers and teaching for him when he was away. She also assisted in editing the mathematics sections of the second edition of Oval Eshbach's Handbook of Engineering Fundamentals. During World War II the Barnes moved back to Princeton while John Barnes worked at Bell Labs. They returned to Tufts after the war ended and John became chairman of the Department of Applied Mathematics. As Mabel said in her AWM talk,

"By that time there was a heavy influx of war veterans. The afternoon before classes were to begin [John] came home and said 'Mabel, you'll be teaching in the morning.' It seemed that no man could be found, the last lead having just failed. Nepotism and my being a woman were overlooked. Desperation again overcame prejudice. I was rehired for the next year."

John Barnes joined the College of Engineering at UCLA in July, 1947, and the family moved to California. In 1950 Mabel was hired by Occidental College as an Instructor by Special Appointment for one semester. That one semester turned into a 21 year career at Occidental until her retirement in 1971 as Professor Emerita of Mathematics. John Barnes died in 1976. At that time of Mabel Barnes' death in 1993, Professor Benedict Freedman presented the following memorial tribute to the Board of Trustees and the Occidental Faculty:

"Her versatility, her mathematical ability, and her enthusiasm for teaching quickly made the appointment permanent. She had a deep understanding of young people, their hopes and their problems, and guided them not only into successful careers but in many cases better lives. She brought to her classes many innovations in pedagogy that today are being rediscovered as major advances, such as undergraduate research, emphasis on problem-solving, and group study. In a day when it was unpopular, she tirelessly promoted careers for women in mathematics. The culmination of this work was an address she gave to the centennial meeting of the American Mathematical Society in 1988, celebrating women in mathematics. In her department she was a loyal, dependable, and congenial coworker, especially dedicated to projects such as Math Field Day which advanced the interests of the entire mathematical community. This continued in her years after her retirement, and her home was always open to colleagues and former students, who will miss her but not forget her.

The Barnes's daughter, Lynne Barnes Small, received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 1967. She is now a professor of mathematics at the University of San Diego.


  1. "Centennial Reflections on Women in American Mathematics," AWM Newsletter, Vol. 18, No. 6 (1988), 6-8. [Reprinted in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Anne Case and Anne Leggett, Editors, Princeton University Press, 2005, 27-30.]
  2. Occidental College Library Archives
  3. Helen Brewster Owens Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College
  4. Author Profile at zbMath
  5. Mathematics Genealogy Project

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of the Occidental College Library Archives