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Ruth Gentry was educated at the Indiana State Normal School. This School was first set up in 1865 and teaching began in 1870. It had therefore only been in operation for a short time when Gentry began her education there. At the time Indiana State Normal School was a teachers college but did not have the right to award bachelor's degree; this came later in 1908. The School later became Indiana State University.
After graduating in 1880 Gentry had qualified as a teacher and indeed she did teach for ten years in preparatory schools. In 1870 the University of Michigan had become one the first colleges in the United States to admit women undergraduates so it was a fairly natural choice for Gentry to make when she decided to study for her bachelor's degree. She studied mathematics at the University of Michigan and was awarded her BA in 1890.
Wishing to continue her studies to graduate level Gentry entered Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania. Again this was a natural choice since the College, which opened in 1885, was the first institution of higher education in the United States to offer graduate training to women. It also had an excellent reputation in mathematics although at the time when Gentry entered the College in 1890 very few women had received a Ph.D. in mathematics in the United States.
The Head of the Mathematics Department at Bryn Mawr College was Charlotte Scott. She had undertaken research at Girton College, University of Cambridge, England, on algebraic geometry under Cayley's supervision. She was awarded a doctorate in 1885 and, on Cayley's recommendation, was appointed the first Head of Mathematics at Bryn Mawr College. Charlotte Scott supervised Gentry's graduate studies.
After a year at Bryn Mawr, Gentry was awarded the prestigious Association of College Alumnae European Fellowship which would finance her studies in Europe. Gentry was the second recipient of the award and the first mathematician. In 1891 she left the United States and travelled first to Berlin in Germany. There she was able to attend lectures but not to formally enrol so it was impossible for her to read for a degree. She wrote to Klein at the University of Göttingen asking if he would admit her to his lectures but he replied to say this was against the rules. Gentry then went to Paris where she spent a semester attending mathematics lectures at the Sorbonne before returning to Bryn Mawr.
While a graduate student Gentry joined the American Mathematical Society in 1894. Her doctoral thesis was supervised by Charlotte Scott, not surprisingly, on geometry which was Scott's own area of expertise. Gentry submitted her thesis On the Forms of Plane Quartic Curves to Bryn Mawr in 1896 and was awarded a Ph.D. The work of her thesis is best described by quoting her own words from the introduction:
Many papers dealing with curves of the fourth order, or Quartic Curves, are to be found in the various mathematical periodicals; but these leave the actual appearance of the curve as a whole so largely to the reader's imagination that it is here proposed to give a complete enumeration of the fundamental forms of Plane Quartic Curves as they appear when projected so as to cut the line at infinity the least possible number of times, together with evidence that the forms presented can exist.
After the award of the Ph.D., Gentry was appointed to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York taking up the appointment in 1896. This was a women's college which had been set up to allow women to obtain an education of equivalent standard to that available to men and the appointment of Gentry was important to them for she was the first mathematics faculty member with a Ph.D. Gentry was promoted to assistant professor in 1900 and she taught there until 1902 when she left to take up a position as Associate Principal and Head of the Mathematics Department at a private school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In 1905 Gentry resigned her position and became a volunteer nurse. For a number of years she travelled both in Europe and in the United States but her health deteriorated and she died at a young age.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
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