Cornell’s First Female Doctoral Grad

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Remembering May Preston Slosson, PhD 1880

By Joe Wilensky

May Preston Slosson, PhD 1880, in a portrait taken around the time she was a doctoral student at Cornell
Slosson around the time she was a doctoral student. (Photo: Flora Slosson Wuellner and the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections)

Last spring, Flora Slosson Wuellner found a few Cornell-related photographs in her grandmother’s papers and sent them to the University. May Preston Slosson, PhD 1880, had been its first female doctoral graduate—as well as the first woman in the U.S. to earn a PhD in philosophy.

In an accompanying letter, Wuellner noted Slosson’s years of work as a teacher, chaplain, and suffragist.

“She was a published poet and painter,” Wuellner wrote. “I remember her well as a gifted woman, powerful and compassionate. She often told me of her love for Cornell and [her professors’] influence on her life. … Cornell would have been proud of her subsequent history.”

Slosson was born in 1858 in Ilion, New York, and grew up on a farm. Her father was a preacher who supported suffrage and higher education for women; her mother, herself a seminary graduate, was a student of languages and an advocate for philosophy and science.

Slosson earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Michigan’s Hillsdale College before heading to the Hill to study philosophy. At that time—the late 1800s—graduate degrees were rare in the U.S.: when Cornell awarded its first PhD in 1872 (in mathematics, to Henry Turner Eddy), there were fewer than 200 grad students in the entire country.

May Preston Slosson, right, poses with husband, Edwin Emery Slosson, at a British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1927
May Preston Slosson (right) with her husband in 1927. (Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives/Science Service Records)

From its founding, admission to the University had been open to women. Ezra Cornell underscored his commitment to this ideal in a now-famous letter to his four-year-old granddaughter in February 1867, writing: “I want to have girls educated in the university as well as boys, so that they may have the same opportunity to become wise and useful to society that the boys have.” Cornell’s first female student matriculated in fall 1870, and three more entered a year later.

(Interestingly, the first woman to earn a PhD in the U.S. also has a Big Red connection: Helen Magill White, second wife of founding President Andrew Dickson White, got her doctorate in Greek from Boston University in 1877.)

After Slosson graduated from Cornell—penning a dissertation titled “Different Theories of Beauty”—she taught Greek and philosophy at Nebraska’s Hastings College; in 1891 she married Edwin Slosson, a chemistry professor and science journalist, and they both went on to teach at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. As chair of the prison committee of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, she began organizing lectures for prisoners at the Wyoming State Penitentiary and was appointed its chaplain in 1899—becoming the first female prison chaplain in the U.S.

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in 1903, the family followed Edwin’s career to New York City, where he worked as a newspaper editor and later helped found Columbia’s journalism school; Slosson became active in the suffrage movement. (She had become accustomed to voting in Wyoming, where women had been casting ballots since 1869, and had enjoyed other rights denied to women in most states at the time.) A collection of her poems, From a Quiet Garden, was published in 1920.

“I remember her well as a gifted woman, powerful and compassionate.

Flora Slosson Wuellner

The Slossons later moved to Washington, D.C., where Edwin was director of the Science Service news agency. After his death in 1929, she moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be near her son and his family (another son had died in childhood). She passed away in November 1943 at age 85.

Slosson’s original dissertation is still housed in the University Library—elegantly printed and comprising just 16 pages of close-set text. (According to Elaine Deutsch Engst, MA ’72, Cornell’s archivist emerita, it’s a typical length for the era.) In it, she explores the “infinity of beautiful forms” and parses a multitude of writers’ and philosophers’ approach to beauty over the centuries.

She cites Socrates’ exclamation to “seek the true Beauty” and Plato’s lack of a marked distinction between the good and the beautiful; from Goethe to Kant to Hume to Emerson, she explores whether beauty is ordinary or eternal. She states that while many qualities of beauty have been explored, one has been overlooked: its “intoxicating power.”

As she writes: “[W]hen we think through how many avenues of delight Beauty appeals to our aesthetic nature, we no longer wonder that Philosophy became confused and quite lost her usual calm self-control, in wandering through this fascinating labyrinth.”

Published October 5, 2021


Comments

  1. Christine Sideris

    As her great granddaughter, I and my family really appreciate the article and photos. Thank you!

  2. Paul V. Sheridan, Class of 1980

    Thank you so much for this article. This is what Cornell is about; true and complete liberty for all. One can only speculate that the Beauty that May Gorslin Preston Slosson was detailing included our beloved campus. She was also the first female Chaplain in the USA (Wyoming). Congratulations to the Cornell Class of 1880!

  3. Laura Pugsley, Class of 1995

    Inspiring article! Love how Ezra truly wanted an education for every person. Flora was no exception. My grandmother had a similar story and I often wonder how they were able to get through that time in history–knowing they had so many challenges. Incredible women. Thank you for sharing her story!

  4. Kelly Brown, Class of 1988

    What a fascinating article! Thank you for sharing. Flora’s story is an inspiring one and a wonderful reminder of the essence of Cornell.

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