Agnes Scott College

Alice Turner Schafer

Alice Schafer
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June 18, 1915 - September 27, 2009

Alice Elizabeth Turner was born in Richmond, Virginia. After receiving a full scholarship to study at the University of Richmond, she earned her B.A. degree in mathematics in 1936. Her years at Richmond were not easy for women students were not permitted in the campus library and she was the only female mathematics major. Nevertheless, she was an excellent student and won the department's James D. Crump Prize in mathematics in her junior year. After teaching high school for three years to earn money for graduate school, she entered the graduate program at the University of Chicago. A favorable impression she had made while attending summer school at Chicago in 1938, especially with her eventual advisor E.P. Lane, had helped her win a scholarship for full-time study. She received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Chicago in 1942. Her thesis, in the area of projective differential geometry, was on "Two singularities of space curves" and was published in The Duke Mathematical Journal, Vol. 11, no. 4, December, 1944 [Abstract]. Further results were published in a 1948 paper in the American Journal of Mathematics [Abstract].

In 1942 Turner married Richard Schafer who had also earned his Ph.D. in mathematics that same year. As was common with two-couple careers in those days, Alice Schafer's employment opportunities were determined by where her husband worked. Consequently she taught at Connecticut College, Swarthmore College, the University of Michigan and several other institutions before joining the faculty of Wellesley College in 1962 as a full professor. In 1969 she was named the Helen Day Gould Professor of Mathematics. Wilma Slaight [6] writes:

"One of Alice Schafer's innovations at Wellesley was an experimental program, developed in 1976, to help students overcome their fear of mathematics. Increasingly, mathematics majors no longer were headed primarily for jobs stressing the physical sciences, since strong quantitative skills were an asset in business, economics, social sciences, and the emerging field of computer science. Schafer developed a special mathematics course that targeted two kinds of students: those who had difficulties with mathematics, and those who felt they did not understand mathematics and therefore avoided it. The course utilized student tutors, a mathematics lab, lectures by women mathematicians, and materials that stressed the applications of mathematics to the humanities – all designed to reduce mathematics anxiety and increase students' interest in mathematics."

Schafer retired from Wellesley in 1980. When she and Richard moved to Virginia in 1988, however, Alice returned full-time to the classroom, teaching at Marymount University until a second retirement in 1996.

Schafer was one of the founding members of the Association for Women in Mathematics in 1971 and President from 1973-75. Lenore Blum, in her history of the early years of the AWM [5], shares the following story told by Schafer:

"One of the ... funny things that happened, that I recall, during my presidency is that when the meeting was in San Francisco [January 1974] AWM was still being harassed by the male mathematicians. Lee Lorch, friend of AWM, came to tell me that some of the men were going to attend the AWM meeting, which I was chairing of course, and were going to break it up. He thought I ought to be warned. I was glad of the warning and told him that teaching in high school for three years (before I had enough money to start graduate school) ought to prepare me for that! Actually, what is interesting, historically, is that meeting was the first time AWM had ever sponsored mathematical talks; before that it had all been consciousness raising. I had invited Cathleen Morawetz and Louise Hay to give short talks on mathematics ... and had scheduled them ahead of the consciousness raising part, and of course, their talks were good. The men, who were for the most part sitting in the last two rows in the audience, never said anything. I never knew who they were and it didn't matter ..."

It was also during Schafer's term as President that the AWM was incorporated and received international recognition by sponsoring a panel at the 1974 International Congress of Mathematicians in Vancouver that focused on the situation around the world for women in mathematics.

Schafer served as chair of the MAS-MAA-NCTM-SIAM Committee on Women in Mathematics from 1975 to 1981. In 1990 the Association for Women in Mathematics established the Alice T. Schafer Mathematics Prize to honor Schafer for her many years of unselfish and dedicated service towards increasing the participation of women in mathematics. The prize is awarded every year to an undergraduate woman in recognition of excellence in mathematics courses and special programs. In 1995 Schafer was asked to lead the Women in Mathematics and Science session of the U.S./China Joint Conference on Women's Issues held in conjunction with the United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing.

In January 1998, the Mathematical Association of America awarded the Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics to Alice Schafer. [Citation]


  1. "Alice Turner Schafer (1915-2009): remembrances," Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol 57, No. 9 (2010), 1116-1119.
  2. Stickgold, Emma. "Alice Schafer, 94; math professor breached social barriers", Boston Globe obituary, November 2, 2009.
  3. "A Tribute to Alice Turner Schafer", AWM Newsletter, Vol. 40, No. 1 (January-February, 2010), 5-12.
  4. Sahin, Ayse. "Alice Turner Schafer," in Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl, Editors, Greenwood Press (1998), 209-214.
  5. Sons, Linda. "Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Alice Turner Schafer," American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 105, No. 2 (Feb., 1998), 105-106.
  6. Blum, Lenore. "A Brief History of the Association for Women in Mathematics: The Presidents' Perspectives," AMS Notices, Vol. 38, No. 7, Sept. 1991, pp. 738-774. [Reprinted in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Anne Case and Anne Leggett, Editors, Princeton University Press, 2005, 80-98.]
  7. Slaight, Wilma. "Person of the Week: Alice T. Schafer," Week of May 21, 2001, Wellesley College Office of Public Information.
  8. Murray, Margaret A.M. Women Becoming Mathematicians: Creating a Professional Identity in Post-World War II America, The MIT Press, 2000.
  9. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  10. Author Profile at zbMath
  11. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  12. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Photo Credit: The first photo is courtesy of the Wellesley College Archives. The second photograph is used with permission of the MAA Committee on Participation of Women and is taken from Winning Women Into Mathematics, published by the Mathematical Association of America, 1991.