March 30, 1864 - May 1, 1949
Helen Merrill was born in Llewellyn Park, Orange, New Jersey. She entered Wellesley College in 1882, only seven years after the first students arrived on campus. Her original intent was to study Latin and Greek, but she changed to mathematics after her first year. She graduated from Wellesley with a B.A. degree in 1886. For the next three years she taught history, Latin, and mathematics at the Classical School for Girls in New York City, followed by two years of teaching mill girls for the Dutch Reformed Church in New Jersey, and two years of teaching mathematics and Latin at the Walnut Lane School in Philadelphia. In 1893 she returned to Wellesley as an instructor in mathematics, remaining there for the rest of her professional career.
During her first years at Wellesley, Merrill began graduate studies in mathematics. She spent 1896-97 at the University of Chicago, 1901-02 at the University of Göttingen, and 1902-03 at Yale. She earned her Ph.D. from Yale in 1903 with a thesis "On Solutions of Differential Equations which possess an Oscillation Theorem." This was published in the Transactions of the American Mathematical Society in 1903 [Abstract]. Meanwhile, she was promoted to associate professor at Wellesley in 1901. After returning to teaching at Wellesley in 1903, Merrill introduced an introductory course in the theory of functions, and a bit later a course in Descriptive Geometry inspired by her work with Professor G. F. Schilling in Göttingen. Neither of these subjects were typically found in an undergraduate mathematics curriculum. In 1915 Merrill was promoted to full professor and was named chair of the department. She remained the chairman until her retirement in 1932.
The Mathematical Association of America was founded in 1916. The American Mathematical Monthly, which had already been publishing for twenty-two years, became the official journal of the new association. Merrill was very active with both the new mathematics association and its journal from the very beginning. She served as associate editor of the Monthly (1916-1919), and was a member of the Executive Council (1917-1920) and vice-president (1920-1921) of the Mathematical Association of America. She was also the author or co-author of three textbooks in mathematics. Selected Topics in College Algebra, published in 1914, and A First Course in Higher Algebra, published in 1917, were written with Clara Smith. The last, Mathematical Excursions: Side Trips along Paths Not Generally Traveled in Elementary Courses in Mathematics, was a text for the general public that was first published in 1933 and later reprinted by Dover Publications. Merrill also published a poem and several songs about mathematics in The Mathematics Teacher ("So let me work", Vol. 19, February 1926; "Conic Sections", "Sing a Song of Six Points", and "Greek and Mathematics", Vol 25, January 1932.)
Claudia Henrion writes about Helen Merrill
"One of the attitudes that was carried down to Helen Merrill from her teachers was to see her work as a mission. This sense of mission had two components. The first was that mathematics was one of the finest fields one could study; the second was that women were just as capable of doing mathematics as men."
Photo Credit: Photograph is used courtesy of Wellesley College Archives