Agnes Scott College

Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler

Anna Pell Wheeler

May 5, 1883 - March 26, 1966

Anna Johnson was born in Hawarden, Iowa, the second daughter of Swedish immigrants. Upon graduation from high school in 1899 she entered the University of South Dakota. She and her sister, also a student at the university, rented a room from the mathematics professor, Alexander Pell, a Russian emigrant (and former Russian double agent) who had received his Ph.D. in mathematics in 1897 from Johns Hopkins University after having had to flee Russia. Pell recognized Anna Johnson's exceptional mathematical abilities and encouraged her to continue her studies after earning her A.B. degree in 1903.

Johnson pursued her graduate studies in mathematics at the University of Iowa, earning a master's degree in 1904 with a thesis on "The extension of the Galois theory to linear differential equations." A second master's degree followed a year later from Radcliffe. After an additional year of study at Radcliffe, she won an Alice Freeman Palmer Fellowship from Wellesley College to study at Göttingen University during the academic year 1906-1907.

Johnson learned mathematics from some of the great mathematicians of the early 20th century. While at Radcliffe she attended lectures from Maxime Bocher and William Osgood at Harvard University. In Göttingen she listened to the lectures of David Hilbert, Felix Klein, and Hermann Minkowski.

Alexander Pell, whose wife had died in 1904, continued to correspond with Anna during her years of graduate studies. After the end of her fellowship in July 1907, the two were married in Göttingen. They returned to the University of South Dakota where Anna Pell taught two courses in the mathematics department during the fall semester. She then returned to Göttingen in the spring of 1908 with the intention of completing her doctoral thesis. Due to conflicts with Hilbert, however, she returned to the United States without her degree. The following January she entered the graduate program at the University of Chicago where she studied with another distinguished mathematician, Eliakim Moore, chair of the department. Her husband at this time was teaching at the Armout Institute of Chicago. After a year of classes at Chicago, Anna Pell received her Ph.D. in 1909 with the thesis on biorthogonal systems of functions that she had originally written (independently of Hilbert) during her time at Göttingen. Her interest in "linear algebra of infinitely many variables" was part of the emerging area of functional analysis. The thesis was published in two parts in the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 12 (1911) [Abstract].

With Moore's help Pell tried to find a teaching position at universities near Chicago. However, as she wrote to her friend Mary Coes, Dean at Radcliffe, "I had hoped for a position in one of the good univ. like Wisc., Ill. etc., but there is such an objection to women that they prefer a man even if he is inferior both in training and research" [3]. A further setback occurred in the spring of 1911 when her husband suffered a stroke. Pell stepped in to teach his mathematics classes at the Armout Institute. The following fall she accepted a teaching position at Mt. Holyoke College where she taught for seven years before moving to Bryn Mawr College in 1918 as an associate professor. Alexander Pell never returned to teaching except for one semester at Northwestern, although he did continue working on his research. He died in 1921.

One of the attractions of Bryn Mawr was the chance to work with graduate students in mathematics. Pell supervised eight Ph.D. students during her career. In 1924 she became head of the mathematics department upon the retirement of Charlotte Scott. She was promoted to professor in 1925. That same year she also married Arthur Wheeler, a colleague in classics at Bryn Mawr who moved to Princeton as a professor of Latin. Pell Wheeler moved to Princeton also, commuting to Bryn Mawr to teach on a part-time basis. This also allowed her to participate in the mathematical activities at Princeton. When her husband died in 1932, however, she returned to Bryn Mawr as a full-time faculty member and department chair until her retirement in 1948. During this period Wheeler played an important role in bringing Emmy Noether to Bryn Mawr.

Anna Pell Wheeler received numerous honors during her life. In 1927 she became the first woman to give the Colloquium Lectures at the American Mathematical Society meetings, and the only woman to give these lectures until Julia Robinson in 1980. Her topics was "Theory of quadratic forms in infinitely many variables and applications" [Outline]. She was an active member of both the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America. She served on the Board of Trustees (1923-1924) and the Council (1924-1926) of the AMS. She was an editor of the Annals of Mathematics for 18 years. Wheeler received honorary doctorate degrees from the New Jersey College for Women (1932) and Mount Holyoke College (1937). The 1940 Women's Centennial Congress named her as one of the 100 American women to have succeeded in careers not open to women a century before.

Wheeler was also an influential and dedicated teacher. Nancy Owens, Anna's grandniece, recounted the following letter written by a former student at the time of Wheeler's retirement [5]:

Dear Mrs. Wheeler, At a time like this one can't help reminiscing. Isolated items come to mind. I remember the foot marks on the wall of the math seminar room. You had the habit of standing on one foot while leaning the sole of the other against the wall. I remember being hauled off a tennis court to be told that Modern Algebra was good for my soul. I remember your stopping the car at an intersection in the middle of nowhere while you tried to identify a bird call which only you had heard. I remember the very "practical" application of some theory in mathematical physics to a vibrating string with a finite number of discontinuities. But most of all I remember my father's words after he met you on Commencement Day in 1930. The thought of his daughter aspiring to be a female mathematician was a bit horrifying to him. However, after he met you, he said, "Such a woman I would like you to be." That, of course, was impossible. However, I hope I will be able to pass on to my students a bit of the feeling for mathematics which you have given yours.

After her retirement Anna Wheeler continued to attend mathematics meetings and correspond with former students. She died of complications from a stroke in 1966 at the age of eighty-two.


  1. Grinstein, Louise S. and Paul J. Campbell. "Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler," in Women of Mathematics: A Biobibliographic Sourcebook, Louise Grinstein and Paul Campbell, Editors, Greenwood Press, 1987, 241-246.
  2. Grinstein, Louise S. and Paul J. Campbell. "Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler," Newsletter of the AWM, Vol 8, No. 3 (September 1978), 14-16 (part 1), and Vol. 8, No. 4 (November 1978), 8-11 (part 2).
  3. Grinstein, Louise S. and Paul J. Campbell. "Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler: Her Life and Work," Historia Mathematica, Vol 9 (1982), 37-53.
  4. Grinstein, Louise. "Wheeler, Anna Johnson Pell," Notable American Women: The Modern Period, Sicherman et al, Editors, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980, 725-726.
  5. Case, Bettye Anne. "Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler: Colloquium Lecturer, 1927," Newsletter of the AWM, Vol 12, No. 4 (July/August 1982), 4-13. [Proceedings of the Symposium held on August 20, 1980, at Ann Arbor, MI.]
  6. Cooke, Roger. History of Mathematics, A Brief Course, 2nd Edition, John Wiley & Sons, 2005, 102-103.
  7. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  8. Author Profile at zbMath
  9. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  10. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive