North American Scholar

WHITE, Helen Magill

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1853-11-28
  • Born City: Providence
  • Born State/Country: RI
  • Parents: Edward Hicks, a classics tchr. & pres. Swarthmore, & Sarah Warner Beans M.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1944-10-28
  • Death City: Kittery Point
  • Death State/Country: ME
  • Married: Andrew Dickson White, 10 Sept. 1890.
  • Education:

    A.B. Swarthmore, 1873; Ph.D. Boston U., 1877; study at Cambridge U., 1877-81.

  • Professional Experience:

    Princ. priv. sch. (Johnstown, PA), 1881-3; found. & dir. Howard Collegiate Inst. (West Bridgewater, MA), 1883-7; prof, class. Evelyn Coll. (Princeton, NJ), 1887-8; tchr. phys. geog. Brooklyn (NY) HS, 1888-90.

  • Dissertation:

    "The Greek Drama" (Boston U., 1877).

  • Notes:

    Helen Magill White has the distinction of being the first American woman to be awarded the Ph.D. degree. A precocious girl, she was trained in the classics through the influence of her father, Edward Hicks Magill, who was successively head of the Classical Department at Providence (RI) High School, assistant master of the Boston Latin School, and president of Swarthmore College. Enrolled in the Boston Latin School as the only girl pupil at the time, she received the A.B. degree in Swarthmore's first graduating class. She wrote her dissertation at Boston University on "Greek Drama" (no copy is known to exist*). At Cambridge she passed the Classical Tripos with honors in 1881. In 1883, at the instance of Edward Everett Hale, she organized and directed for four years Howard Collegiate Institute for girls, after which for a short time she was professor at Evelyn College, a women's adjunct of Princeton. At age 35 her professional career came to an end. Other than her dissertation, she made no contributions to classical learning. In 1890 she married Andrew Dickson White, ex-president of Cornell University, whom she accompanied on his diplomatic assignments as ambassador to Russia and Germany.

    [*Ed. note 2018: a manuscript copy exists among her papers in the Rare Book and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library.]

  • Sources:

    Walter C. Eells, "Earned Doctorates for Women in the Nineteenth Century," Bull. AAUP (Winter 1956) 645; Edith M. Fox, NAW, 3:588-9. [Manuscript of dissertation: Helen Magill White papers, 1865-1938, in Division of Rare Books and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library, Collection #4107, Box 16, Folder 8.]

     

  • Author: Meyer Reinhold