Honoring a Pioneer

Paul Irwin appointed to AWM selection committee for Humphreys Award

Paul Irwin was just out of graduate school when he came to Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in 1974. Back then, the chair of the mathematics department was M. Gweneth Humphreys, a veteran professor and trailblazer for female mathematicians.

“Gwen always said that anyone with a Ph.D. ought to be able to teach any course in our curriculum,” said Irwin, who still enjoys the variety of teaching different courses, including calculus, linear algebra, and quantitative reasoning. “She could be a little intimidating, but we got along just fine.”

Nearly four decades later, Irwin is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Mathematics. He and Dan Raessler, the Charles A. Dana Professor of Music, are the longest serving faculty members on campus. Irwin is known for riding his bicycle to campus and baking scones for his students. He is also the liaison for the College’s flagship study abroad program, The World in Britain, in Reading, England.

Irwin was recently appointed by the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) to a two-year term on the selection committee for the M. Gweneth Humphreys Award.

The new prize, first awarded in January to a Bryn Mawr College professor, recognizes an undergraduate mathematics teacher’s mentorship role with female students.

“The mathematical community used to be pretty much all men,” said Irwin. “There are still fewer women getting Ph.D.’s than men, but the disparity used to be huge. Now, it’s closer to something like 60 percent men and 40 percent women.”

Humphreys was a pioneer among female Ph.D.’s. A native of British Columbia, she earned her doctorate in algebra in 1935 from the University of Chicago. She was an instructor at two other women’s colleges before coming to R-MWC in 1949. After 29 years as the head of the mathematics department, Humphreys retired in 1980 and lived in Lynchburg until her death in 2006. “She held students and her mathematics department faculty to the highest standards, and that’s been an inspiration for me during my career here,” said Irwin.

Humphreys was such an inspiration to Carol Wood ’66 that she led a drive, with Margaret Alexander ’66, to create the Humphreys award. Wood believed this type of recognition was needed because mentorship by undergraduate professors like Humphreys was often overshadowed by the mentoring work of graduate level faculty.

“Gwen was influential in so many lives, not just the ones who became Ph.D. mathematicians, but young women who were interested in mathematics,” said Wood, a mathematics professor at Wesleyan University and past president of the AWM. “She believed in us, and she made us better. That’s what I think a teacher should do.”