Frances Ellen Baker

1902 - 1995

Biographical notes by Gladys Elizabeth Baker, (sister)

Richard Philip Baker and Katherine Riedelbauch of Glasford, Illinois were married there February 22, 1902.  At that time RPB was co-principal of the Anna, Illinois Academy.  From what I know of the curriculum taught in the Academy it was probably comparable to a Junior College.  RPB taught Mathematics and Classics; Kate taught Music and German.  She was a graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University's School of Music.  Their first child was born December 19, 1902.  She was named for RPB's favorite sister, Ellen S. Baker, aka "Nellie" and her maternal grandmother, Frances.  In the summer of 1903 the little Baker family traveled to England so grandmother Baker  could see her first grandchild.  Not until Frances was christened there as Nellie Frances did Aunt Nellie tell Kate that her given name was Ellen, that Nellie was a nickname.

The Bakers stayed in Anna another year, then they moved to Chicago where RPB was employed by the Donnelly Printing Company as head chemist.  Apartment living was hard on a child although Kate took her to a nearby park whenever the weather allowed.  So it was a relief when RPB joined the faculty of the State University of Iowa faculty in 1905.  That fall a colleague, thinking to be kind asked the family to a football game.  At the half Frances piped up "Mama, aren't they going to fight again?"

When Frances reached school age the neighborhood school was an overcrowded two room school heated by stoves.  Since Frances was, prone to colds and chest infections Kate suggested to RPB that they teach her themselves.  This they did until Frances was ready for high school at age twelve.  Kate taught her German and music; RPB English and mathematics.  History was through reading.  RPB's idea of teaching geography was reading Charles Darwin's "Voyage of the Beagle."

Frances was already an accomplished pianist when she entered high school in 1915.  Her German was good enough so that later in the University she could enroll in a third year class.  In high school she was active in the school newspaper and year book, becoming editor-in-chief her senior year.  She graduated as valedictorian of her class, using the name Frances Ellen Baker.   She entered the State University of Iowa, in Iowa City, in the fall of 1919.  In February 1920 she fell a victim of Spanish influenza which was almost fatal.  She was bed-ridden for several weeks resulting in the loss of a semester's work.  She attended summer school and gradually made up lost credits.

During her University career she continued the study of classics, both Latin and Greek.  The University had three distinguished senior prizes, the Lowden Prizes; one in Latin, one in Greek and one in Mathematics.  All were by examination.  Frances won both the Latin and Greek awards.  It was difficult for her to decide on a major subject as she was an all-round scholar but finely settled on Mathematics because that was what she wished to teach.  As extra-curricular activities she was active in a Classics Club and in debating. As part of the University's debating team she traveled to Washington University, St. Louis, for an inter-collegiate debate which the Iowa team won handily.

She graduated Magna Cum Laude, was a junior Phi Beta Kappa, and elected to the National Debating Society -- Sigma Delta Rho.  Following this she spent two years working for an MS degree under RPB's directions.  She then decided she wanted to teach rather than to continue for a PhD.  That could come later.
At the end of the summer of 1925 she accepted a teaching position
in mathematics and physics at Tabor College, Tabor, Iowa.  Tabor was in the southwest section of the state.  The college was an off-shoot of Grinnell College, Iowa which in turn was an off-shoot of Oberlin College.  It had closed its doors because of financial troubles but was taken over by the Episcopal Church.  Frances liked her students there as well as the residents of the small town but unfortunately the Episcopal Church lost interest, withdrew its support, so for the final spring term of her second year there she was living on funds from home!  RPB was disgusted.

1927-1928 found her teaching in the Jefferson City, Missouri Junior College.  By the end of that year she accumulated enough savings to plan a trip to Europe.  Gladys was to go along courtesy of "Papa".   We crossed the Atlantic on a one-class steamer, the Minnekada., filled primarily with teachers and students going abroad.  Never will I forget Frances' excitement as we docked at Plymouth, England on an early June morning.  We did not disembark there but continued on to Calais, France.. where we entrained for Paris.  The tour organized by the Temple Tour Company was excellent.  Our leader was a music professor from the State University of North Carolina, an excellent leader.  The tour covered France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Holland.  We crossed from there to Harwich, England for a train to London where Aunt Mary met us.  At that point we left the tour.   Somewhere along the way Frances decided she could not face another year in Jefferson City, Missouri.  So she cabled her resignation.  Cables were somewhat unexpected there and the superintendent was so upset he called RPB, who knew nothing of this but he assured the man that if Frances said no she meant no.

That fall Frances enrolled at S.U.I.  to complete studies for a teaching certificate, accomplished the first semester.  She became a doctoral candidate the following spring quarter at the University of Chicago.  Wanting to be independent she accepted a teaching position at Creston Junior College, Creston Iowa, where she remained for two years.  She returned to Chicago to complete her studies for the PhD, awarded the spring of 1934.  These were depression days.  No position was available until the second semester of 1935 when she went to Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, New York, as a substitute faculty member of the Mathematics Department. That fall she joined the mathematics department of Mt. Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts.  Although she stayed there seven years they were not happy ones.  KRB  who spent a winter with her listened to her troubles and when Frances asked her what she would do replied emphatically "I would find another job." She would have, too.  This experience really diminished Frances' spirit and independence.  One of the problems arose from the honor system for examinations which meant exams were not proctored.  After one examination (possibly a final but of this I am not sure) it was very clear that one girl had cheated.  The honor system required that faculty report such dishonesty.  Being Frances she did.  The result was that Frances was the one chastised, threatened with being fired.  Nothing was done to the student; she was the daughter of a trustee, unfortunately. This reminds one of the messenger bringing bad news and having his head chopped off.  The other difficulty was a decidedly jealous chairman, so that after seven years Frances remained an assistant professor.

At this critical point Vassar needed a permanent member for its Mathematics Department.  Mary Wells, the chairman, called Frances to offer her an associate professorship.  So in the fall of 1942 Frances moved back to Poughkeepsie, New York.  She remained at Vassar College until her retirement in 1968 as a full professor.  When Vassar was considering the nonsensical scheme to unite with Yale University, give up the Poughkeepsie campus, it was Frances who asked the pertinent question of the visiting Yale professor whose answer gave everyone at Vassar second thoughts.  Frances simply wished to know if the Vassar mathematics faculty would have the opportunity to continue teaching in their own fields.  The answer "Oh, no, the Vassar staff would handle only beginning courses."  In other words do the drudgery.  The Vassar faculty was disenchanted; the proposal fell through.  Many Vassar Alumnae were so indignant they changed their wills promptly and never changed them back.

Frances was a dedicated teacher.  Although she published her masters thesis that of the doctorate was never published.  Aside from one or two minor papers her chief contributions during the Vassar years was writing reviews for the Publication "Choice", of new college texts.  She wrote probably some 50 of these reviews although I cannot substantiate that.  After she moved to Sun City, AZ she read college texts for "Reading for the Blind".  One year she presented a paper on a subject of long interest for the South West Association of Mathematics at the University of Arizona, Flagstaff.  It was well received.

Frances' biography is included in the Mathematical Historical Section of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington, DC, as is RPB's. I sent their doctoral hoods to the Smithsonian along with other documentary records.  Frances was also listed in some editions of "Who's Who in America", Marquis Publications, Chicago Illinois.  During her Vassar teaching days she also lectured at other institutions.  A list of these is appended.

For several years she lived in her own home in Sun City, AZ.  After her health began to fade she lived in several intermediate care centers and finally in a nursing home.  She died April 4, 1995 at age 92.  She is buried in the family plot in Iowa City, Iowa.
                              Gladys E. Baker January 12, 2000