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Mabel Sykes: A Life Untold and an Architectural Geometry Book Rediscovered – Early Life

Maureen T. Carroll (University of Scranton) and Elyn Rykken (Muhlenberg College)

Mabel was born on February 6, 1868, on the Near West Side of Chicago to Sarah Jane (Clark) Sykes (1837–1917) and James Walter Sykes (1833–1896). Born in New Hampshire and educated in Worcester, Massachusetts, her father was the son of a woolen manufacturer. James Sykes worked in the grain industry in Boston before relocating to Chicago in 1859, where he and his business partner built Chicago’s first grain dryer [2]. Within a year he established his own firm, J.W. Sykes & Co., and married Sarah Jane Clark. Mabel was born at home eight years later, just a mile northwest of the origin of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Driven by strong winds, the fire came within five blocks of her place of birth. Her father’s business was not so lucky; located on LaSalle Street in the heart of the business district, “the great fire made a clean sweep of Mr. Sykes’s property, and he was unfortunate enough to be among those who recovered no insurance” [2].

James Sykes’ business and the family home both relocated around Chicago often during Mabel’s early life as she welcomed three younger siblings: Marion, Florence Winifred, and Walter James. From 1883 to 1887 she attended West Division High School, a newly established 4-year school that expanded tremendously during her time there as Chicago dealt with its ever-growing population. In her last year of high school her father’s business failed and, worse yet, the resulting seizure of Sykes’ warehouse led to his arrest for fraud in October 1886 [10]. Sykes had claimed nonexistent warehouse stock as collateral against some very large loans [15]. Though the family’s financial situation could not have been as secure as it had been prior to their father’s legal troubles, both Mabel and her sister Marion were still afforded the finest educational opportunities available for women interested in mathematics and science.

While her father’s case was proceeding through the legal system, Mabel graduated from high school and, in 1887, started her undergraduate studies at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a top-tier women’s college with a strong program in mathematics. Tuition and board was $300 per year during Mabel’s time at Wellesley [17, 18, 19, 20]. In what must have been a devastating state of affairs for the Sykes family, her father’s case was national news, appearing on the front page of the New York Times when he received a three-year sentence in 1888. The Times summarized the Chicago courtroom scene: “Sykes took the verdict coolly, blew his nose, and received the expressions of sympathy of a group of well-dressed people who surrounded him” [6]. While this must have been a heavy weight for Mabel to bear in her first two years at Wellesley, she stayed on track with her studies and graduated in four years with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1891 [22]. Though Wellesley was among the top producers of women who continued their studies to a terminal degree, this was to be Sykes' highest degree [8]. Meanwhile, her sister Marion completed her high school education and worked as a Chicago elementary school teacher for three years. It was not until Mabel completed her degree at Wellesley that Marion continued her education [24].

Maureen T. Carroll (University of Scranton) and Elyn Rykken (Muhlenberg College), "Mabel Sykes: A Life Untold and an Architectural Geometry Book Rediscovered – Early Life," Convergence (February 2020)