Women Mathematicians and NMAH Collections Sister Helen Sullivan: A College Teacher and More

Sister Helen Sullivan, August 1981.
Sister Helen Sullivan, August 1981. Gift of Helen Sullivan (AHB2012q05998)

Sister M. Helen Sullivan (1907-1998) represents the large number of American women with PhD’s in mathematics whose names and accomplishments are not well known within much of the mathematics community. Sullivan, like many other mathematicians, was a college teacher whose only mathematical research publication was her dissertation but who wrote about, among other subjects, the teaching of mathematics. She interacted with her own students as well as other students and mathematicians through her involvement in Kappa Mu Epsilon, a mathematical honor society, and on committees and panels of professional organizations that related to teaching.

Sullivan also represents the group of Catholic nuns who earned PhD’s in mathematics from Catholic University. During the 1930s, Catholic awarded more PhD’s in mathematics to American women, twelve (eleven of them nuns), than any other school except the University of Chicago, which awarded twenty-four. Catholic nuns were well represented at the August 1981 honoring women who received PhD’s in mathematics before World War II. Of the fifteen women who attended three were women religious and all had received PhD’s from Catholic: Sister Leonarda Burke in 1931, Sullivan in 1934, and Sister Elizabeth Frisch in 1940. All three shared the same dissertation advisor, Aubrey E. Landry. Landry advised twenty-eight doctoral students, eighteen of whom were women. Landry’s only woman student who was not a nun was Euphemia Lofton Haynes who, in 1943, became the first African-American woman to receive a PhD in mathematics.

Image of Sisters Helen Sullivan and Leonarda BurkeImage of Sister Elizabeth Frisch
Three religious women with PhD’s in mathematics, August 31, 1981. Left: Sisters Helen Sullivan and Leonarda Burke. Right: Sister Elizabeth Frisch with Uta C. Merzbach, then Curator of Mathematics, NMAH. (81-11283-3 & 81-11284-28)

Sullivan donated her publications and items related to Kappa Mu Epsilon to the museum. Most of her publications concern undergraduate research, teaching, and philosophy.