Agnes Scott College

Mary Ellen Rudin

Mary Ellen Rudin

December 7, 1924 - March 18, 2013

Written by Shannon Carr, Class of 2000 (Agnes Scott College)

Mary Ellen Rudin was born Mary Ellen Estill on December 7, 1924 in the small town of Hillsboro, Texas. Mary Ellen was from a middle-class, Presbyterian background; her father, Joe Jefferson Estill, was a civil engineer, and her mother was a high school English teacher. She had one sibling, Joe Jefferson Estill, Jr., who was ten years her junior.

After graduating from high school, Mary Ellen enrolled at the University of Texas, and it was there that she developed her interest in mathematics. She flourished under the instruction of R.L. Moore, a research mathematician and a professor at the University of Texas. His "Moore Method" of encouraging his students to partake in original research inspired Mary Ellen to pursue a career in mathematics. She completed her B.A. degree in 1944, and her Ph.D. followed in 1949; she obtained both degrees from the University of Texas. After completing her Ph.D., she taught at Duke University until 1953.

The year of Mary Ellen's departure from Duke coincided with her marriage to a fellow mathematician, Walter Rudin. Together they relocated to the University of Rochester, where she served as a visiting assistant professor from 1953 to 1958. The Rudins found a permanent home in Madison, Wisconsin when both Walter and Mary Ellen accepted teaching positions at the University of Wisconsin. Mary Ellen served as a lecturer until 1971 when she was promoted to full professor. In 1981 she became the first to hold the Grace Chisholm Young Professorship at Wisconsin. She has also held visiting professorships in New Zealand, Mexico, and China. Both she and Walter are now Professor Emeritus at Wisconsin.

This successful career in mathematics was achieved in the midst of a very active and full family life. Together, she and Walter had four children: Catherine, born in 1954; Eleanor, born in 1955; Jefferson, born in 1961; and Charles Michael, born in 1964. Mary Ellen managed the demands of both motherhood and a career as a prominent mathematician with an amazing amount of ease and grace. As a mother of four and a grandmother of two, Mary Ellen never let her career detract from her devotion to her family. She once stated that she "never minded doing mathematics lying of the sofa in the middle of the living room with the children climbing all over [her]" (Jackson 14). By immersing herself completely in both activities, Mary Ellen was able to dedicate herself entirely to her two great passions: family and mathematics.

Mary Ellen Rudin's work primarily centered upon set-theoretic topology, with an emphasis on the construction of counter examples. She produced approximately seventy research papers on this subject. She was also an excellent teacher, and she supervised a large number of Ph.D. students throughout her career. Mary Ellen was also the beneficiary of three research grants. She has been involved in a large number of mathematical associations and societies, namely the Mathematical Association of America, the Association for Women in Mathematics, the Association for Symbolic Logic, and the American Mathematical Society (AMS); during 1980-1981, Rudin was Vice President of the AMS. Rudin also served on a variety of mathematical boards such as the Committee of the National Academy of Science for Eastern Europe, the National Committee for Mathematics of the Board of Mathematical Science of the National Research Council, and the editorial board of Topology and Its Applications. Mary Ellen was also the recipient of the Prize of Nieuw Archiet voor Wiskunde (Mathematical Society of the Netherlands) in 1963.

Mary Ellen Rudin is an amazing woman. In a sense, she held two jobs; she was both a full-time mother and prominent mathematician. She claimed that she was fueled by a motivation that came "entirely from within" (Jackson 14), and it was this inspiration coupled with a love of her work and family that brought her success in life.

June 1997


  1. Grinstein, Louise S., and Paul J. Cambell (Ed.). (1987). Women of Mathematics: A Bibliographic Sourcebook, Westport, CN: Greenwood Press.
  2. Meyer, Margaret. "Mary Ellen Rudin," in Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl, Editors, Greenwood Press (1998), 195-200.
  3. Jackson, Allyn. " Mary Ellen Rudin," in Profiles of Women in Mathematics: The Emmy Noether Lectures. Association for Women in Mathematics, 1984.
  4. Henrion, Claudia. Women in Mathematics: The Addition of Difference, Indiana University Press, 1997, 85-94.
  5. Albers, Donald J. and Constance Reid. "An Interview With Mary Ellen Rudin", College Mathematics Journal, 1986. [Available from the MAA website]
  6. "Faculty Remembers Mary Ellen Rudin", Department of Mathematics, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
  7. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  8. Author Profile at zbMath
  9. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  10. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Photo Credit: Photograph used with permission of the Association for Women in Mathematics and is taken from Profiles of Women in Mathematics-The Emmy Noether Lectures, published by the AWM.