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

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

Sykes’ textbooks were well-received, earning positive reviews from the American Mathematical Monthly and The Mathematics Teacher [50, 51, 52, 53, 54]. In particular, of her Source Book, H.E. Cobb wrote, “As a supplementary book in the high school course in geometry this text will, in the writer’s opinion, prove of great value” [51]. Of her 1918 Plane Geometry text, The Mathematics Teacher review noted, “This book will prove interesting to all teachers who believe that geometry should train the pupils for original thinking” [53]. In a comparison of then-current geometry texts to find those that were particularly good at conveying problem-solving techniques, Truman Sharwell singled out Sykes and Comstock for their “excellent full analyses” in their 1922 edition of Plane Geometry [55]. The review of the 1933 revision of this text testified to its “usability,” and states further, “This textbook humanizes geometry, emphasizing its beauty and usefulness. Geometric reasoning is made more enjoyable by showing how it fits in with life experiences and situations” [54]. In the review of the 1994 reprint of the Source Book, Sykes‘ “painstakingly rigorous investigation of architectural design and ornamentation” with an “impressive supply of historical references” was deemed an “enduring and timeless classic” [52].

In a biographical note accompanying an article appearing in 1935, the School Science and Mathematics journal described Sykes as “a charter member of the Central Association of Science and Mathematics teachers” who was “one of Chicago’s most successful teachers of secondary mathematics” [26]. While her life’s work testifies to the great passion she brought to the teaching of mathematics, it is difficult to determine the personal effect Mabel had on her students. There is, however, one impressive piece of evidence attesting to her influence as a teacher.

William L. Hart (1892–1984) was a professor at the University of Minnesota for 43 years, sold over 2 million textbooks, and served as Vice President of the Mathematical Association of America. In 1986, Hart’s biographer wrote, “W.L. Hart was born on October 12, 1892. He attended the South Chicago High School, which had a superior curriculum, principal, and staff of teachers, including Mabel Sykes, a distinguished mathematics teacher to whom Hart gave credit for his success in the field” [12]. It is touching that fifty years after Mabel Sykes’ death, she was not only remembered, but acknowledged, for her tremendous and indelible influence seventy-five years after Hart’s high-school graduation and two years after his death. It is an amazing tribute to a woman who dedicated her life to mathematics education.

Figure 17: Bowen High School Mathematics Club (1915). Mabel Sykes on right in middle row.

As befits the lifetime they spent together, Mabel and Marion rest in the family plot they share with their parents, sister Winifred, and brother Walter James in Chicago’s Graceland Cemetery. The cemetery was designed by landscape architects with aesthetics in mind and is the resting place of many prominent Chicagoans, including Marshall Field, Philip Armour, and George Pullman. Most fittingly, some of Chicago’s renowned architects such as John Root, Louis Sullivan, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe can also be found there, as well as James H. Bowen, the namesake of the high school where Mabel devoted four decades of her life to teaching mathematics.

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