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Archives Spotlight: The Jeanne Agnew Papers

The Jeanne Agnew Papers

By Michelle Bogart and Carol Mead

The following article, featured as part of the Archives of American Mathematics Spotlight, was published in the August/September 2008 issue of MAA FOCUS. The full issue is available here (pdf).

Jeanne LeCaine's graduation photograph

Jeanne LeCaine's graduation photograph, Queen's University, 1937. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Jeanne Agnew Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

The Archives of American Mathematics is pleased to announce that the Jeanne Agnew Papers are now available to researchers.

Jeanne LeCaine Agnew was born in Ontario, Canada, in 1917. After earning her bachelor of arts degree (1937) and her master of arts degree (1938) in mathematics at Queen's University in Canada, she attended Radcliffe College in Boston, where she received her Ph.D. in 1941. G.D. Birkhoff advised Agnew's dissertation, titled On the Generalized Gamma Function and its Analogue for q-Difference Equations, and acted as a mentor to her.

This last accomplishment was a rare privilege. Of Birkhoff's 46 Ph.D. students, Agnew was one of only four women. In a letter Agnew wrote to Birkhoff's son, Garrett Birkhoff, about studying with his father, she noted his reluctance to direct her thesis: "His previous female student had married and had five children, and he felt that in working with her he had neglected someone who might have been more dedicated to mathematics."

However, Birkoff did accept her, and she completed her thesis under him. The experience had lasting effects. In the same letter, she remarked that numerous former students had told her that she made them "'work very hard, but we learned more from you than we did from any other teacher.' Perhaps this indicates one of the ways my years at Harvard prepared me for my later years."

After Agnew graduated from Radcliffe, Birkhoff helped her get a position at Smith College. Although she was happy at Smith, Agnew felt compelled to help in the war effort and left the college for Ottawa (against the advice of Birkhoff), where she worked as a mathematical physicist with the Canadian Atomic Research group.

In 1942, she married an American, Theodore Agnew, who was a history graduate student at Harvard (and who studied under noted historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr.). Her husband had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was sent to the Pacific. During this period, Agnew found it difficult to find work in her field; she said, "It was not easy for a female to get a really good job."

Eventually, she obtained a position at Cambridge Junior College, where she stayed until 1947, when she and her husband moved to Oklahoma. In 1953, Agnew started teaching in the Oklahoma State University (OSU) mathematics department, where she taught undergraduate and advanced courses until she retired.

Many of Agnew's former students became faculty members at regional colleges and universities, and one of her students, William Pogue, went on to be a pilot in NASA's Skylab program. Correspondence from Pogue and newspaper clippings related to the Skylab program are included in the papers.

The highlight of the Agnew papers is the material related to the many National Science Foundation (NSF) grants in which she participated. She received numerous grants to gather industry-related mathematics problems for use in the classroom, at both undergraduate and high school levels.

For example, in the mid-1970s, Agnew and the OSU mathematics department sent a newsletter and questionnaires to the graduates of the program in the hopes of raising scholarship money. One of the questions asked, "Were you prepared for your present occupation?" The students engaged in teaching answered a resounding yes, while those who had jobs in industry had a different response: one female student responded that she wished that, while in school, she had seen mathematics put to work in real-world situations. These responses, along with Agnew's desire to provide her students with tools to integrate the topics taught in the classroom, motivated her to find industries willing to help her design a new way of teaching mathematics.

Jeanne Agnew in the classroom

Jeanne Agnew in the classroom, 1972. (Click to enlarge.)
Source: The Jeanne Agnew Papers at the Archives of American Mathematics.

Agnew co-authored several textbooks, including Linear Algebra with Applications, which was one of the first linear algebra textbooks to include the use of the computer. She was also honored with several awards, including numerous Outstanding Teacher awards, the Outstanding Woman award in 1971, and an honorary doctorate from Lakehead University in 1990. Queen's University also awarded her an honorary doctorate in 1988 in recognition of her contributions to education. She was posthumously inducted into the OSU School of Education Hall of Fame in 2005.

The Archives of American Mathematics (AAM) is a unit of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas at Austin. Individuals interested in conducting research or donating materials or who have general questions about the AAM should contact Carol Mead, Archivist:, (512) 495-4539.

Revised on July 12, 2010.