Helen Magill White

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Helen Magill White
Helen Magill White
White seen in 1873, at the time of her graduation from Swarthmore
Born November 28, 1853 (1853-11-28)
Providence, Rhode Island
Died October 28, 1944 (1944-10-29) (aged 90)
Kittery Point, Maine
Occupation First American female Ph.D.

Helen Magill White (November 28, 1853 – October 28, 1944) was an American academic and instructor. She holds the distinction as the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in the United States.

Early life and education[edit]

She was born Helen Magill in Providence, Rhode Island, to Edward Hicks Magill and his wife. Theirs was a Quaker family. Helen was brought up to believe that she deserved the same education as a man; in 1859, the family moved to Boston, Massachusetts, where Helen enrolled as the only female student in the Boston Public Latin School. Her father taught French and Latin there for three years, and he was promoted to submaster.[1][2]

In 1869, her father joined the faculty of the new Swarthmore College which was founded by Quakers in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Helen enrolled as an undergraduate; in 1871 her father was selected as the college's second president, serving for 17 years. The younger Magill graduated as a member of the Class of 1873, Swarthmore's first graduating class (five women and one man).[3]

Magill attended graduate school at Boston University, earning her Ph.D. in Greek in 1877. She was the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in the United States.[4] Magill traveled to England, studying at the University of Cambridge and placing third in her 1881 tripos (honors examinations) at Newnham College.[1]


After serving as the principal for a year at a private school in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, Magill was selected in 1883 to organize Howard Collegiate Institute in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. She was the director of Howard until 1887, when she resigned, she taught for a short amount of time at Evelyn College for Women, a women's annex to Princeton University. Suffering from an illness, she taught high school for a few years.

Personal life[edit]

Helen Magill met Andrew D. White in 1887 while she was presenting a paper at the American Social Science Association. A college classmate of Magill's father, White was retired from his many years as first president of Cornell University, he had been widowed that year. They married in September 1890, and had one daughter, Karin White.

Helen accompanied her husband when he was appointed to diplomatic posts in St. Petersburg (1892–94) and Berlin (1897–1903). She did not participate in public or academic life after that.

Other pursuits[edit]

Helen Magill White published a letter in 1913 opposing women's suffrage. However, some historians believe she was expressing her opposition to the actions of the Women's Social and Political Union in England, rather than to the suffrage cause.[5] The Union's militant acts included burning churches, bombing homes, and sending letter bombs to public officials.[5]

Later years[edit]

After Andrew White died in 1918, Helen White lived abroad and in Ithaca, New York, she retired to Kittery Point, Maine, where she died in 1944.[1]


  1. ^ a b c "Helen Magill White (American educator)". Encyclopædia Britannica. britannica.com. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  2. ^ "1883: Edward Hicks Magill (1825-1907)". 'An Onward Spirit': A Brief History of Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  3. ^ "1873: Graduation of the First Class". 'An Onward Spirit': A Brief History of Swarthmore College. Swarthmore College. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  4. ^ "Women's, Gender, & Sexuality Studies Faculty". Boston University. Archived from the original on 12 October 2013. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  5. ^ a b "UPBRAIDS SUFFRAGISTS - Since They Condone Outrages, Mrs. White Refuses Cash". NYTimes.com. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 

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