Agnes Scott College

Ruth Goulding Wood

January 29, 1875 - May 5, 1939

Ruth Wood was born in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in 1875. She received her early education in the Pawtucket schools, then entered Smith College. She graduated from Smith College in 1898 with a B.L. degree. In 1901 Wood received her Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University with a thesis on "Non-Euclidean Displacements And Symmetry Transformations." She then spent one year as an instructor in mathematics at Mount Holyoke College before returning to Smith College in 1902 as an instructor. She spent the rest of her professional career at Smith except for one year of postgraduate study at the University of Göttingen. After her return from Göttingen in 1909, she was promoted to associate professor and then to full professor in 1914. She retired from Smith in 1935.

Wood wrote for the Smith College Monthly the following justification for mathematics as a necessary requirement in a college curriculum:

The value of that rigorous mental training which is obtained from the study of mathematics has long been recognized, although that special kind of mental gymnastics is as painful to the ordinary student as physical training to a rheumatic. But the recent change in the college curriculum which practically makes mathematics required for all freshmen, was made, I feel sure, not only to give freshmen the benefit of such training, but also to make it possible to carry on the work in advanced classes. In other words, a knowledge of at least the elementary mathematics given the first year, has become a necessity if one is to be anything more than an amateur student.

This is particularly true of the sciences. For instance, to attempt to study astronomy without a knowledge of mathematics is like reading "Hamlet with Hamlet left out." One may take a descriptive course, which is nothing more or less than a geography of the heavens, but that is not astronomy. One may spend hours in a physical laboratory measuring heat or electric currents, but this is not physics. To get any definite idea of the fundamental principles of these sciences, one should have a thorough knowledge of mechanics and other elementary mathematics. In some of the scientific schools calculus is being introduced in the freshmen year, because the economists complain that they are unable to teach more than the mere elements of their science without presupposing a knowledge of calculus and analytic geometry. I inquired in a university library not long ago for a certain book on Differential Equations and found that it was in daily use in the psychological laboratory. These new sciences are being put on a firm foundation of which mathematics is a corner stone.

As a study of mathematics will always from the very nature of things be unpopular, and the number for which it has its own peculiar charm, always has been and always will be small. But those who pride themselves on being general students, who wish to do something more than dabble at education, should study mathematics because it is of fundamental importance, just as one studies the languages in order to read the masterpieces of literature.

Wood's area of research was non-Euclidean geometry. She was a member of the American Mathematical Society. She presented two talks at meetings of the Society and had one publication based on her Ph.D. thesis work [Abstract].

Her retirement years were full of travel, an activity she greatly enjoyed. Just before leaving Smith she had traveled in Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. In 1936 she went to California via the Panama Canal, and in 1937 traveled to South America, crossing the Andes by car.

Upon her death in 1939, the faculty of Smith College adopted a resolution stating that from 1902 when she joined the Smith faculty until her retirement in 1935

...she devoted to the cause of education in general and of mathematics in particular all the powers of her brilliant and well-disciplined mind. Many generations of students have found stimulus in her friendly criticism, encouragement in her sympathetic understanding, inspiration in her scholarship. Her colleagues have profited by her ready cooperation, keen intelligence and substantial common sense. No one of them can forget her sturdy insistence on careful thinking and honest dealing. She was not only a scholar, she loved the beautiful in music and literature. She was an accomplished needlewoman and an almost professional gardener. She had a genius for friendship and to all who knew her she was the embodiment of thoughtfulness, generosity and courage.

Wood's will stipulated that upon the death of her three beneficiaries, the trust fund and accumulated income be turned over to the trustees of Smith College to assist in paying "one or more women professors in the mathematics department a salary equal to the highest salary paid to any member of the teaching staff of the College."


  1. Bailey, Martha J. American Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary, ABC-CLIO, 1994.
  2. Fenster, Della D. and Karen H. Parshall. "Women in the American Mathematical Research Community: 1891-1906" in The History of Modern Mathematics, Vol. III, E. Knobloch and D. Rowe, Editors. Academic Press, Inc., 229-261.
  3. Mary Elizabeth Williams Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.
  4. Helen Brewster Owens Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe College.
  5. Woman's Who's Who of America: A biographical dictionary of contemporary women of the United States and Canade, 1914-1915. Edited by John William Leonard, American Commonwealth, 1914.
  6. Mathematics Genealogy Project