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EPADEL:A Semisesquicentennial History, 1926-2000

Section 6.8 Profile: Anna Marguerite Marie Lehr (1898-1987)

We have met Marguerite Lehr in every chapter but the first. Who is this woman who received her Bryn Mawr Ph.D. under Charlotte Angas Scott in 1925 (Chapter 2), who delivered four invited addresses to the Philadelphia Section – in 1932 (Chapter 3), in 1944 (Chapter 5; on aerial photography), in 1954 (Chapter 5; on a TV series), and in 1963 (this chapter) – and who was elected chair of the section in 1955, the first woman to hold this office since Anna Pell Wheeler in 1943?
Marguerite Lehr was born in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 22, 1898. Her father was a grocer. Marguerite was the only one of five children to attend college. While a student at Goucher College, she gave a talk to the mathematics club titled “Geometry of four dimensions”. She graduated from Goucher in 1919 with a B.A. degree in mathematics.
Lehr planned to remain in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins, for graduate work. However, a job offer as a Reader for Charlotte Angas Scott caused her to change her mind, so she enrolled at Bryn Mawr instead. This position required Lehr to answer questions in Scott’s classes and to hold office hours for her. (Scott was completely deaf by then.) In addition to Scott, Lehr studied mathematics at Bryn Mawr under Anna Pell Wheeler and W. B. Huff. Indeed, Lehr can be seen as continuing the tradition of mathematical excellence at Bryn Mawr, as the following dates suggest:
  • Charlotte Angas Scott (1858-1931)
  • Anna Pell Wheeler (1883-1966)
  • Marguerite Lehr (1898-1987)
Lehr ended up as Scott’s last Ph.D. student when she received her degree in mathematics and physics in 1925. Her dissertation, “The plane quintic with five cusps,” appeared in the American Journal of Mathematics in 1927. Almost 50 years later Lehr wrote a biography of her beloved mentor for the book Notable American Women, 1607-1950 (pp. 249-250).
Bryn Mawr awarded its Thomas Fellowship to Lehr in 1920, but she did not use it to travel abroad until 1923. That year she combined it with an AAUW fellowship to study algebraic geometry with the Italian geometers at the University of Rome.
Lehr returned to Bryn Mawr in 1924 and accepted an instructorship in mathematics. She remained there for the rest of her professional career. During this time she took study leaves at Johns Hopkins (1931-1932), the Poincaré Institute in Paris (1949-1950), and Princeton (1956-1957). She also taught in the war-training program at Swarthmore College in 1944.
One of Lehr’s main interests was the use of television for teaching mathematics. This was first seen when she conducted a series of television shows from October 1953 to January 1954. Titled “Invitation to mathematics,” the series was shown on Channel 6, WFIL, one of Philadelphia’s three major network stations, as part of the program called “University of the Air”. Lehr’s aim was “to show the average viewer the intention of mathematics, the mathematization drive, as a natural and power aid toward ordering our experience”. She prepared a course syllabus of abstracts and readings that the TV station circulated for twenty-five cents! The first topic – regular shapes via tiles – brings to mind a topic favored by Doris Schattschneider, who is profiled below.
The 1950s was a time of live TV so all of Lehr’s lectures were delivered without any re-takes! She summarized her experiences in two articles. Her paper, “An experiment with television,” appeared in the January 1955 issue of the Monthly. In addition she wrote an article in the fall 1956 issue of the Goucher Alumnae Quarterly with the cute title, “Of dice and men”.
Lehr became known as one of the experts in the use of this new medium. In 1957 NBC hired her as a consultant for a TV series on mathematics whose guests included Emil Artin, H. M. S. Coxeter, Saunders Mac Lane, William Feller, and Richard Courant. She was also appointed to the MAA’s Committee on Instructional Films, which produced a series of films to reach teachers and students who had no access to creative mathematicians. The Committee’s report was published in the June/July 1958 issue of the Monthly.
Lehr was appointed one of the MAA’s visiting lectures for 1958-1959. Other visiting lecturers that year were Tom Apostol, John Kelley, Lynn Loomis, S. S. Wilks, and S. Ulam. Impressive company! During the year Lehr accepted invitations to speak in New England, northern New York, Ohio, Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota.
Marguerite Lehr retired from Bryn Mawr College in 1967. Upon her retirement she received a prestigious Lindback Award “in recognition of her brilliance as a teacher, for which generations of students will remember her.”
In addition to the publication of her dissertation in 1927, Lehr published two more papers in the American Journal – one in 1931 with Virgil Snyder of Cornell on involutions of infinite discontinuous Cremona subgroups of S 4 and the other in 1932 on singularities of curves. After World War II her primary mathematical interest shifted to probability theory and its applications.