Agnes Scott College

Sister Mary Celine Fasenmyer


October 4, 1906 - December 27, 1996

Remarks on the life of Sister Mary Celine Fasenmyer
As told to Herbert Wilf, Professor of Mathematics, University of Pennsylvania, in April of 1993

She was born in Crown, in central Pennsylvania, October 4, 1906. Her parents were George and Cecilia Fasenmyer, though her mother, Cecilia, died when Mary was one year old. Her father worked his own oil lease, in the area. He remarried three years later, a woman, Josephine, who was twenty five years his junior.

Her early education was at the St. Joseph's Academy in Titusville, PA, from which she was graduated in 1923, having been always "good in math". She then taught for ten years, and in 1933 received her AB degree from Mercyhurst College. She was sent to Pittsburgh by her order, to teach in the St. Justin School, and to go to Pitt for her MA degree, which she received in 1937. At Pitt her major was mathematics and her minor was in physics.

The community told her to go to the University of Michigan for her doctorate, which she did from the fall of 1942 until June of 1946, when she received her degree. Her thesis ["Some Generalized Hypergeometric Polynomials"] was written under the direction of Earl Rainville, whom she remembers as having been quite accessible and helpful, as well as in a subject area which she liked. Her thesis showed how one can deduce recurrence relations that are satisfied by sums of hypergeometric terms, in a purely mechanical ("algorithmic") way. She used the method in her thesis to find pure recurrence relations that are satisfied by various hypergeometric polynomial sequences, and in two later papers [one was the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 53 (1947), Abstract, Article] she developed the method further, and explained its workings to a broad audience in her paper in the American Mathematical Monthly [Volume 56 (1949), p.14, Abstract]. It is the intellectual progenitor of the computerized methods that we use today to prove hypergeometric identities, thanks to the recognition by Doron Zeilberger that her method can be adapted to prove such identities.

We are grateful to Professor Wilf for his permission to reproduce this material from his web page on Sister Mary Fasenmyer. Herbert Wilf, Marko Petkovsek, and Doron Zeilberger have published a book entitled A=B about a whole new science of proving identities by computer, a field that had formerly been the province of humans. Sister Mary Fasenmyer's role was pivotal in developing this theory.


  1. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  2. Author Profile at zbMath
  3. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  4. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Photo Credit: Photograph used with the permission of Professor Herbert Wilf, University of Pennsylvania, and comes from the book A=B by Herbert Wilf, Marko Petkovsek, and Doron Zeilberger.