August 7, 1869 - December 5, 1959
Mary Frances Winston, the first American woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from a European university, was born in Forreston, Illinois, one of seven children of Thomas Winston, a country doctor, and his wife Caroline. After being taught at home by her mother, she left Illinois at the age of 15, along with her brother, to enroll at the University of Wisconsin. Winston graduated from Wisconsin in 1889 with a classical degree with honors in mathematics.
After a brief stint as an instructor in mathematics at Downer College in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, from 1889-1891, Winston received a fellowship in mathematics to study at Bryn Mawr College with Charlotte Scott. She stayed at Bryn Mawr for only one year, however, before returning to Illinois to study at the University of Chicago during 1892-1893. During the summer of 1893 Winston attended the International Mathematical Congress at the World's Columbian Exposition in Evanston, Illinois. There she met Felix Klein, the distinguished professor of mathematics at the University of Göttingen. Klein suggested that she come to Göttingen to study mathematics. Fortunately, Winston also met Christine Ladd-Franklin at this same exposition. Ladd-Franklin spent much time, and some of her own money, helping women to pursue the graduate study of mathematics. In this case, she offered Mary Winston $500 for study abroad, an offer that allowed Winston to attend Göttingen. Winston later received a European Fellowship from the Association of Collegiate Alumnae to support her studies during her last year at Göttingen.
Winston arrived in Göttingen at the same time as the English mathematician Grace Chisholm (later Young) and Margaret Maltby, a physics major from Ohio. She stayed for three years, working in the area of differential equations. When not involved in her studies, Winston enjoyed taking long hikes in the nearby Harz mountains and the Thuringen Forest, often with Miss Chisholm. She completed her examination for the Ph.D. degree in July, 1896, with a thesis on "Über den Hermiteschen Fall der Laméschen Differentialgleichungen" (On the Hermite case of the Lamé differential equations). Her thesis advisor was Felix Klein. She had published an earlier paper in the Mathematische Annalen (Vol. 46, 1895) about the theory of hypergeometric functions. Winston had to return home to find a job, but the Ph.D. degree would not be granted until the thesis had been turned in. She hoped to have it printed in the United States and took the manuscript with her, but this country had no way of printing the mathematical symbols, so it had to go back to Göttingen. As a result Winston did not officially receive her diploma until 1897 when her dissertation was published in Germany.
Winston returned to the United States to teach high school in St. Joseph, Missouri. The next year she became the head (and only member) of the mathematics department at Kansas State Agriculture College in Manhattan, Kansas. This followed a political upheaval in Kansas that resulted in the entire faculty at Kansas State being replaced. Winston was the first woman with a doctorate appointed to the Kansas State faculty. She taught there until giving up the position in 1900 to marry Henry Byron Newson, professor of mathematics at the University of Kansas. They had three children between 1901 and 1909. During this time Mary also published a translation of the 1900 lecture by David Hilbert where he set out his famous list of twenty-three major mathematical problems for the 20th century.
Tragically, in 1910, Henry Newson died of a heart attack, leaving his wife with no job and three small children to raise. In 1913, Newson received an offer as an assistant professor of mathematics at Washburn College, a position she accepted despite having to temporarily live apart from her children. She left Washburn in 1921, in part because of one of the first cases of academic freedom investigated by the American Association of University Professors. She had been one of only eight faculty members to support a political science professor who had been dismissed for discussing his political views in the classroom. Newson moved back to Illinois to become professor of mathematics at Eureka College, a position she held until her retirement in 1942. She was the chair of the Division of Science and Mathematics from 1935 to 1939. Although she devoted her professional career to her teaching and her students, and thus did little mathematical research after her Ph.D., she still consulted occasionally with her son, Henry Winston Newson, on the mathematical aspects of his work in nuclear physics.
Mary Winston Newson joined the American Mathematical Society in 1896. She was also a charter member of the Mathematical Association of America, served as President of the Kansas Association of Teachers of Mathematics, and was chairperson of the international relations roundtable of the Eureka branch of the American Association of University Women. In 1940 she was honored at the Women's Centennial Congress as one of 100 outstanding women who held positions that were not open to women one hundred years earlier.