Dr. Mae Anderson (1899-1948)

Dr. Mae AndersonIn 1937, Dr. Mae Anderson became the first woman to head a department at Concordia College in a non-traditional subject for women: mathematics. She was also one of the few women in the United States to achieve a doctorate in the subject before 1940. In addition to her scholarly achievements she was active in campus organizations and events.

Mae Anderson was born on May 31, 1899, near Westby, Wisconsin.  Both her parents, Ida Berg Anderson and Norton Alfred Anderson, came from Norwegian ancestry.  The Anderson family settled in Wisconsin with two children. In 1910, they moved to Shelly, Minnesota where Mr. Anderson was a merchant. Mae Anderson graduated from Halstad High School, located a few miles away from Shelly.  She attended Concordia College from 1916-1920, where she was successful in both the classroom and extracurricular activities. In addition to majoring in mathematics and French, Anderson was involved in the Alpha Society, a scholastic honor society that focused on fellowship and knowledge of literature. Anderson was also on the staff of the student publication the Crescent. [1]

After graduating from Concordia, Anderson taught high school in Gayville, South Dakota for a year before enrolling at the University of Chicago for her master’s degree. In 1923, Anderson received her master of arts in mathematics. Next, Anderson taught at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa for five years before returning to her alma mater to teach mathematics. [2]

Mae Anderson had a long teaching career at Concordia; she was a member of the mathematics faculty from 1928-1948. In the summers of 1929, 1932, 1934, and 1935 she continued her graduate studies.  In the 1935-1936 academic year she took a leave of absence to finish her doctorate. Anderson was one of 228 pioneering women in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics before 1940, a true accomplishment. [3]

Anderson was a driven and dedicated individual, which paid off when she became the first woman to head the mathematics department at Concordia College. One of Anderson’s colleagues described her as “a living testimony to her oft-stated belief … [that] scholarship and hard work are the only ways of learning.” [4]

In addition to teaching, Anderson participated in a variety of activities on campus. In 1930, she was the secretary of the homecoming planning committee. Additionally, she participated in the faculty club committee, favors committee, student loan committee and graduate scholarship committee. Anderson was also the secretary for the Committee on Relations to the Armed Forces, in which capacity she corresponded with Cobbers who served in World War II and gathered questionnaires about their service. With over eight hundred Cobber undergraduates and alumni serving in the armed forces, this correspondence represented an enormous commitment of Anderson’s time and effort.  Later in her Concordia career Anderson was active in the Women’s League and the Lutheran Daughters of the Reformation. She regularly attended services at Trinity Lutheran Church. [5]

Mae Anderson left a legacy even though she unexpectedly died from acute leukemia in early April 1948. [6] A former student recounted, “Her obvious love of the subject, her patience and sense of humor instilled a lasting respect in her students.” [7]

Authors: Hanna Wallmow & Hans Frank

[1] “Dr. Mae Anderson, Mathematics Head, Dies Unexpectedly in Rochester Hospital,” Concordian, Apr. 8, 1948, 1; Judy Green and Jeanne Laduke, “Supplementary Material for Pioneering Women in American Mathematics: The Pre-1940 PhD’s,” “Mae Anderson,” American Mathematical Society, 2009. http://www.ams.org/publications/authors/books/postpub/hmath 34-PioneeringWomen.pdf; “Dr. Mae Anderson,” 1.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Concordia College, 1937 Cobber (Moorhead, MN:  Students of Concordia College, 1937), Concordia College Archives; Green and Laduke, “Supplementary Material,” “Mae Anderson.”
[4] Concordia College, Cobber 1947 (Moorhead, MN: Concordia College, 1947), Concordia College Archives.
[5] Lisa Sjoberg, “Concordia Great: Dr. Mae Anderson,” last modified on February, 3, 2016, accessed April 5, 2016. https://www.concordiacollege.edu/news-media/detail/concordia-great-dr-mae-anderson/; Carroll Engelhardt, “Concordia Goes to War,”  in Cobbers in WWII: Memoirs from the Greatest Generation,  ed. James B. Hofrenning (Minneapolis, Minn: Lutheran University Press, 2010), 26-27.
[6] “Dr. Mae Anderson,” 1.
[7] Concordia College, 1946 Cobber (Moorhead, MN:  Concordia College, 1946), Concordia College Archives, Moorhead, MN.