August 23, 1866 - April 14, 1948
Clara Latimer Bacon was born in Hillsgrove, McDonough County, Illinois of a pioneer New England family. She was graduated from Hedding College, Abingdon, Illinois in 1886. After a year of teaching she entered Wellesley College. In 1890 she received her B.A. degree from Wellesley College, then taught secondary school in Kentucky for one year and in Illinois for five years. In 1897, at the invitation of Dr. Goucher, she began teaching at the Women's College of Baltimore (now Goucher College) as an instructor of mathematics. She arrived in Baltimore with her sister Agnes, their mother, and servant, Ida Lindsay, who took care of Clara for the rest of her life. During her time at Goucher she continued her graduate studies at the University of Chicago during the summer quarters from 1901-1904, earning a master's degree from the University of Chicago in 1904 with a thesis on " The determination and investigation of the real chords of two conics which intersect fewer than four real points." In October 1907 she began graduate work at Johns Hopkins University in mathematics, education and philosophy. A fellowship from the Baltimore Association for Promotion of University Education of Women allowed her to spend the 1910-1911 academic year at the university. In 1911 she became the first woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University. Her dissertation was on "The Cartesian oval and the elliptic functions p and σ," later published in the American Journal of Mathematics, Vol. 35, No. 3. (July, 1913), pp. 261-280. [Abstract]
Bacon was promoted to associate professor at Goucher in 1905 and to full professor in 1914. She continued to teach at Goucher College until her retirement in 1934 as Professor Emeritus of Mathematics. She was by all accounts an outstanding teacher. One student wrote of her :
She believed in us so simply and so deeply that we could not disappoint her. When she felt that circumstances prevented us from doing all she hoped, she tried to change the circumstances. It was her support that made graduate study possible for me. Her patience and understanding as a teacher opened up the beauty of mathematics. For many years her faith in all of us made life seem good.
At least eight of her students went on to earn the Ph.D. degree in mathematics, including Marguerite Lehr. Lehr writes in the Goucher Alumnae Quarterly :
The four college years for this particular math major at now a curious mixture of memories of Dr. Bacon—of "Freshman Analyt" (in Katy Hooper, of course), boards full of figures for "projective," deep despair over Invariants, and after-class consultations on Dr. Scott's book (those sessions known as the after-math); but also of picnics at Herring Run, tea at 231 6 with Ida reassuringly at the door, and of 1919's Donnybrook with its page "There are smiles" headed by Dr. Bacon herself. The fifteen years since have added new details, but they have given color to the old ones, showing them as only part of what Dr. Bacon has brought to year after year of students. Going back to college means seeing Dr. Bacon if only for a second, to say how work is going; to have the spur of her satisfaction if it is going well, and the support of her understanding if the road is hard.
Bacon was a member of the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America, serving for a time as president of the Maryland-Virginia section of the MAA. She served for many years on the College Entrance Examination Board. In addition, Bacon was involved with several associations for peace as well as the Foreign Policy Association and the League of Women Voters.
Photo Credit: Photographs are used with permission of the Goucher College Archives