Agnes Scott College

Isabel Maddison

Charlotte Scott: An Appreciation
Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin

Reprinted with the permission of the Bryn Mawr Alumnae Bulletin

In the spring of the year 1880 the academic calm of the University of Cambridge was shaken by an unprecedented event; a woman, Charlotte Angas Scott of Manchester was equal to the eighth wrangler! The examiners had consented informally to examine the women students of Girton and Newnham Colleges and four classes had been won, two in History, one in Moral sciences and one, the most interesting, in Mathematics.

When the mathematical lists were read in the Senate House it is reported that the men undergraduates with their instinct for fair play shouted "Scott of Girton" when the eighth name was reached. After this public opinion obliged the University authorities to grant to the women students the right to examinations and to having their names placed on the official list, though in a separate table from the men. However it was ten years before Miss Scott's record was excelled, when Philippa Fawcett was placed above the Senior Wrangler.

Cambridge has long since ceased to arrange 100 or more candidates in order of mathematical merit on the results of six days of examinations, but in those days it was attempted with more or less confidence, supported by the fact that for some reason or other and with due allowance for accidents, the first eight or ten wranglers each year were men who usually made their mark later in some kind of mathematical work. The career of a woman falling in this favored class was therefore watched with interest, and when in due course Charlotte Angas Scott won the further honor of a Doctorate of Science of London University and was entitled to wear a gorgeous scarlet gown with yellow trimmings, there were many flattering newspaper notices.

About this time Bryn Mawr College had been founded and the Dean, President-Emeritus Thomas, having been commissioned to select the Teaching Staff for the new College, went, with her sure instinct for quality, to Miss Scott and offered her the Associate Professorship in Mathematics. Miss Scott, who had been lecturing at Girton and Newnham Colleges for a year or two, accepted and arrived at Bryn Mawr late on a September evening in 1885. She rang the door-bell of Merion Hall, then the only Hall of Residence, and was amazed that the door was opened apparently by a white dress and apron, the dusky features of the wearer merging unseen into the darkness of the empty building in a manner very disconcerting to the unaccustomed English stranger.

The third-floor room over and as large as the present reception room, with a bedroom behind, was given to the new woman professor, and there for about nine years Miss Scott lived, gradually covering the dark green walls with books she collected and loved with a connoisseur's passion. About 1894 she moved to the house on the college hill, built for Professor Shorey and now occupied by Dr. Sanders. Here she lived until 1925 when she returned to England to settle in her beloved Cambridge.

Ill health and constantly increasing deafness cut her off gradually more and more from the general life of the college. Her doctors advised out-of-door exercise and she joined a golf club, and taking lessons from a professional, became a fair player. But golf was difficult to combine with college engagements, and she turned instead to gardening. Learning the art from the beginning with her usual thoroughness, she made the barren slope below her house literally blossom like a rose, and there you might have found her at any hour of the day, planting, weeding, watering, or gathering a bouquet for a gardenless passer-by.

While in the early days of her life at Bryn Mawr she was the only member of the Faculty living in a hall she was regarded with some awe by the students, but was also appealed to for help in all kinds of difficulties, and never, I am sure, failed or disappointed a serious applicant. Her keen logical mind was brought to bear on any subject, no matter how far from her real interests if it seemed of importance to anyone, and the way in which she dragged the relevant facts to light, analyzed them, and deduced the solution, was an object lesson in reasoning. From this time dates the beginning of an admiration for Miss Scott as a woman of rare understanding and intellect, which grew with the years.

That this admiration had roots in the classroom was of course natural, for Professor Scott was an extraordinarily good teacher. She had the rare gift of lucid explanation combined with an intuitive perception of just what the student could grasp, so that she never bored by being too easy nor discouraged by being too difficult. Nor did she spare any effort to help a stupid student who really tried, though she was ruthless with the lazy or casual. The undergraduates' summing up ran something like this:

Great Scott, Wonderful Scott
If you've brains she loves you
But then you have not.

Her method with regard to lecture notes was to write them after, not before, the lecture. It takes grit to spend time at the end of a busy day in writing out, word perfect, a lecture that you gave at nine a.m. knowing moreover that at nine a.m. tomorrow you have to go on with the next chapter. But the task was done in her large clear writing, except when too severe neuritis prevented her. Then I had for a time the privilege of being her amanuensis, and the neat cases of notes were put away until next year, or the year after when the subject came round again. But the next delivery showed no lack of spontaneity for changes and improvements were made until the notes could be, and as a matter of fact were in one instance, used as text book material.

Perhaps, however, it was her graduate students who appreciated her most, and the long line of candidates for the Doctor's degree, many now teaching in colleges all over the country, to whom she gave her devoted attention. She read widely and was always supplied with a wealth of subjects to be investigated. She could also inspire the beginner with the courage to attack a problem. In the publication of articles her help was invaluable, for she was critical to a degree and her style was a model of clarity.

Professor Scott was a geometrician. She cared for French and Italian, rather than for German work, the clear precision of French style appealing to her especially. Among English writers she admired Cayley, and among German, Klein. She was greatly interested in the peculiarities of curves and surfaces and wrote many articles for American and English journals on different problems connected with curves and quantics. There is no space here for even a partial list of her publications. She wrote an admirable text book on Analytical Geometry.

On April 18, 1922, her former students and her many friends and admirers in the mathematical world gathered at Bryn Mawr in honor of her 37th year of teaching. The idea of the Celebration and the means of carrying it out were due to Marion Reilly, one of her most devoted pupils. Professor Alfred North Whitehead came out from England for the sole purpose of giving the address on the occasion. This was delivered in Taylor Hall in the afternoon when the Chapel was crowded with mathematicians from all over the country, prominent among whom were her old Cambridge friends, Dr. Frank Morley of Johns Hopkins, Dr. Ernest T. Brown of Yale, and her former colleague Professor James Harkness of Montreal who had joined her at Bryn Mawr in 1887 and had been an able and congenial coadjutor and friend for many years until he was called to McGill University. At dinner in the evening, a brilliant affair in Pembroke Hall with President Thomas presiding, many flattering speeches were made, and Professor Scott, embarrassed but happy, charmingly acknowledged the compliments.

A word or two must be added about Professor Scott as a member of the Faculty. At the time of which I can write with personal knowledge no really important measure would have been brought before the Faculty without, if possible, laying the matter before her in advance so that the benefit of her judgment could be secured. She stood like a rock for high standards and rigorous justice, and if she felt strongly on any question that was coming up would, often at great personal inconvenience when her health was particularly bad, sit through a long meeting of which she could hear hardly a word, and with the help of a few notes scribbled by her neighbor, gather the drift of the debate and at just the right moment make a brief incisive speech which – such was the respect with which her opinions were regarded – often turned the vote from the direction in which it was tending to the side which she supported.

As a committee member she mastered the details of the changes to be reported on with her usual thoroughness and through her invaluable gift for seeing all sides of a subject helped in forestalling criticism.

The foregoing is a very inadequate statement of a few of the memories which come to me when I think of Professor Scott whose life ended on November eighth. Chief among her gifts was a very precious one I have not mentioned: Sympathy.