Grace Bates

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Grace Elizabeth Bates (13 August 1914 – 19 November 1996) was an American mathematician and one of few women in the United States to be granted a Ph.D. in mathematics in the 1940s. She became an emeritus professor at Mount Holyoke College. As well as teaching, she wrote papers on algebra and probability theory and two books: The Real Number System and Modern Algebra, Second Course.[1] Throughout her own education, Bates overcame obstructions to her pursuit of knowledge, opening the way for future women learners.[2]

Early life and education

She was born on 13 August 1914.[3] Interested in mathematics from a very young age, Bates was encouraged to pursue her interest by incorporating it into her play activities often playing math games on her grandfather's knee.[2] Bates maintained a close relationship with her brother, reinforced by the early death of their mother. Upon completing high school, her brother used his salary to help her continue her education through high school and college.[4]

Bates experienced obstacles in her pursuit of education. She attended the Cazenovia Seminary for high school and described the experience of being denied the right to pursue the studies of her choosing:

"I pulled the strings to—I was taking the usual elementary algebra and then geometry, and I wanted to go on in my senior year with intermediate algebra, and they said there that I’d have to take a history course. And I squawked and I wrote my dad, and he got the commissioner [of education] to write and say that [if] some young person what was really interested in mathematics, [then] they could take history...another year, but don’t try to deter [them from taking mathematics]. So I got to take mathematics!"[2]

These same obstructions continued with her through college. For her bachelor's degree, she attended Middlebury College, which was segregated by sex. Again, she had to petition to be allowed to take higher level math courses. Her request was granted and she became the only woman enrolled to study differential equations in her senior year.[2] After graduating from Middlebury College in 1935, she chose to continue her schooling, receiving her master's degree from Brown University in 1938.[2]

Professional life and continuing education

Having aspired to be a teacher most of her life, Bates began teaching mathematics and English to elementary and secondary school children. The idea of teaching at the collegial level drew her back to continue her education.[2] While pursuing her doctorate, Dr. Bates discovered her love for research.[2] For her dissertation, Dr. Bates worked with Reinhold Baer and rose to his frequent challenges. In her words,

"[T]he one thing about getting a doctorate I had dreaded was this original thesis you were supposed to write ... I didn’t think I could do it, and I [thought] it would be all drudgery. Well, it wasn’t that way at all with Baer ... I have it [the dissertation] here — it’s on free loops and nets. He gave me the definition of a loop, of which I’d never heard before, and [the] idea of using a graphic approach to some of the theory he had [believed] ought to be true, and said, “Oh, go ahead now, let’s see what you can do.” And I’d fumble around, and I didn’t think I had much. I’d go into the study room we graduate students had, and he’d be in the very next day to see. And he’d say, “Miss Beets!” He never did get my name right. And...after I’d give him something that I’d done... he’d say, “Well, this is all wrong. This theorem is all wrong. I don’t think it’s true.” ... I thought, “I’m going to stay up all night till I find a counterexample!” And I really worked like a dog, and I got into my study place there the next day, and sure enough he came in and said, “Ah, Miss Beets, I found a counterexample!” And I said, “So did I!” And that was the first [time], really, that I began to have confidence in myself"[2]

In 1949, Bates graduated from the University of Illinois with a Ph.D. in mathematics.[2] After teaching briefly at Sweet Briar College, she joined the faculty of Mount Holyoke College where she advanced to become a full and emeritus professor. She worked here till her retirement in 1979.[2] It was while working at Mount Holyoke Dr. Bates discovered her love of statistics.

"It was a tradition everywhere that statistics-probability was given to the youngest person. Nobody wanted to teach it! And so I was given a course in probability and a course in statistics at Mount Holyoke. And I worked like a dog. And I found I was getting really interested in it. My predecessor was a famous mathematician, [Antoni Zygmund,] who went to the University of Chicago from Mount Holyoke. Well, he had taught [probability and statistics before me]. And I’d come in after him and struggled along as he did. But [Zygmund] came back from a social occasion [some] time later. And I was telling him how interested I was getting in the subject, but I really needed more education in it. And he said, “Well, I’ll write to my friend out in California, Neyman, Jerzy Neyman”—a Polish mathematician. “I think maybe he could help you.” And he apparently did, and I got this letter offering me an assistantship for the summer session there at the University of California at Berkeley." [2]

Thanks to the introduction from Antoni Zygmund, Dr. Bates spent several summers in the 1950s working with Jerzy Neyman at Berkeley. Together they wrote a number of research articles.[2]

Throughout her life, Bates found she was drawn to teaching, which sparked her love of research which in turn, brought her back to teaching.[2] She died on 19 November 1996.[1][3]


  1. ^ a b Tiffany K. Wayne (2011), "Bates, Grace Elizabeth", American Women of Science Since 1900, Vol 1. A-H, ABC-CLIO, pp. 218–219, ISBN 9781598841589 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m Bart, Jody (2000). Women Succeeding in the Sciences: Theories and Practices Across Disciplines. United States of America: Purdue University Press. pp. 46–82. ISBN 1-55753-121-8. 
  3. ^ a b "Deaths", Notices of the AMS, Vol. 44 (3): 352, 1997 
  4. ^ Murray, Margaret Anne Marie (2001). Women Becoming Mathematicians. United States of America: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. pp. 44–99. ISBN 0-262-13369-5. 
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