If you check those daily history sites like we do, you may notice that tomorrow (June 20) in 1895, Caroline Willard Baldwin received the first ever PhD in Science awarded to a woman by an American university.
That’s a remarkable achievement for the time. If you’re a female geek, you may also wonder about the rest of Caroline’s story. We certainly did, and spent an afternoon tracing her life through the Internet. Thankfully, it seems that everyone bought into that “information superhighway” line years ago, because one clue led to another, and another, and yet another. While it’s not the complete picture, we can tell you Caroline was an extraordinary woman and an extraordinary mind.
Caroline was born in San Francisco on June 30, 1869. She was the only child of Army vet and miner Alfred Baldwin, one of the pioneering members of Santa Cruz County in California, and Fannie Willard, who was noted for her intellectual pursuits. Fannie must have been quite a woman in her own right, because in addition to public schooling, she rounded out young Caroline’s education with lessons in language and other subjects.
Caroline went on to become the first woman to receive a Bachelor of Science degree from the School of Mechanics at the University of California in 1892. She was so bright, she was one of the student speakers for the commencement ceremony at the University of California and placed third in her graduating class at Cornell University, where she received the famed doctorate in 1895. She wrote “A Photographic Study of the Arc Spectra” for the Physical Review journal of experimental and theoretical physics in 1896, and you can still read and download it today at the Internet Archive.
Three years after receiving her doctorate in physics, she married Charles Theobald Morrison and had two children, but she didn’t just pack her degrees away and take on the only role of wife and mother as society would expect at the time. Not only did she teach physics at the California School of Mechanical Arts, she also co-created the entire physics course there, authoring it with George Merrill. She was also active in a number of charities, and her favorite hobbies included “mountain trips” and “automobiling,” according to the 1914 Women’s Who’s Who, proving that her quest for adventure involved both mind and body. She left this earth far too soon, and her January passing is noted in the May 1928 issue of the Cornell Alumni News.
As Paul Harvey would say, “Now you know the rest of the story.” We just felt such an accomplished, history-making woman deserved more than one line on a webpage. By the way, if any of you write steampunk, she would make an awesome heroine.