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EPADEL:A Semisesquicentennial History, 1926-2000

Section 5.7 Profile: Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler (1883-1966)

Anna Johnson Pell Wheeler was one of the best mathematicians to ever grace our section. A charter member of the MAA, her national eminence brought immediate legitimacy to the fledgling Philadelphia Section when it was founded in 1926. However, her lot in life was certainly not an easy one.
Anna Johnson was born on May 5, 1883, in Hawarden, Iowa, where she attended public school. Although the youngest of three children, she was the first to attend college, entering the University of South Dakota at age 16 as a sub- freshman. She graduated four years later with an A.B. degree in mathematics. The professor of mathematics at South Dakota, Alexander Pell, became her mentor. Anna then won a scholarship to the University of Iowa, where she earned a masters degree in one year. Next she attended Radcliffe College, also on scholarship. She was awarded a second masters degree the following year, 1905. She remained at Radcliffe one more year before moving to Göttingen University, where she attended lectures by Felix Klein, David Hilbert, and Hermann Minkowski. The Palmer Fellowship that supported her study tour stipulated that all women remain unmarried throughout its duration. Hence she waited until July 1907, to marry her former mathematics professor – over the opposition of her parents, who objected to the 25-year age differential. Pell traveled to Göttingen for the wedding.
Afterwards the couple returned to South Dakota, where Alexander Pell had been promoted to Dean of Engineering. Anna Pell taught courses in the fall semester, but in the spring she returned to Göttingen alone to complete work on her thesis. An apparent disagreement with Hilbert caused her to leave without a doctorate. However, she departed with a completed thesis. When Anna Pell returned to the United States she joined her husband in Chicago. She was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1910 after satisfying the university’s one-year residency requirement. It was only appropriate that E. H. Moore be listed as her thesis advisor because Moore was a Hilbert enthusiast who was involved with research on integral equations, the topic of Pell’s dissertation, at that time.
In spite of having a Ph.D. from Chicago, Anna Pell was unable to obtain a position at any large university. Her predicament was exacerbated by a paralytic stroke her husband suffered in the spring of 1911. That fall she accepted a position as an instructor at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She was at Mount Holyoke when she became one of the charter members of the national MAA in 1916. In 1918 she accepted an assistant professorship at Bryn Mawr College. Her husband died two years later. In addition to teaching graduate courses, in 1924 Anna Pell succeeded Charlotte Angas Scott as head of the mathematics department when the revered Scott stepped down.
However, Pell soon married again, this time to Arthur Wheeler, a professor of classics at Princeton University. Residing in Princeton forced her to resign her administrative duties at Bryn Mawr, but she continued to teach there on a part- time basis. The Wheelers enjoyed summer vacations at their summer home in the Adirondack Mountains called “Q.E.D”. Unfortunately, her second husband died in 1932. After this Anna Pell Wheeler returned to live and teach full time at Bryn Mawr. The next year she was instrumental in attracting Emmy Noether to the faculty, a hiring that brought an air of excitement and international prestige to the Main Line campus. Unfortunately Pell’s colleague and good friend Noether died unexpectedly in 1935, less than two years after arriving.
The years 1920-1935 certainly brought much sadness to Anna Pell Wheeler, for she lost her father, mother, two husbands, and a close friend/colleague. Yet throughout this time and up to her retirement in 1948, she maintained a busy work schedule at Bryn Mawr that also included weekly trips to a colloquium at the University of Pennsylvania. In the 20-year period between 1922 and 1942 she managed to direct eight doctoral dissertations.
Although Wheeler presented an invited lecture to the Philadelphia Section, her AMS 1  Colloquium Lecture in 1927 probably represents the highlight of her professional speaking career. No woman would be chosen to deliver a lecture in this prestigious series again until Julia Robinson in 1980.
Wheeler died on March 26, 1966, at the age of 82.