Oregon Mathematician Lucile Copenhaver

by Katelyn Rule

     Lucile Copenhaver was an intelligent young woman who grew up in Springfield, Oregon at the beginning of the 20th century. She, like many women of the time, was restricted not only in choice of profession, but also how far she was able to go in her chosen career path. She became a teacher and was one of only a few women in the country that were math professors at the time. At the turn of the 20th century, women were barely being accepted into graduate schools to pursue advanced degrees. Margaret Rossiter, in her book Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, notes that from 1893 to 1907 and after . . . several diehard institutions in the United States and Germany were induced to accept their first women and award them doctorates.” (29) By the time Copenhaver started her graduate program in 1920, women in graduate schools were not unheard of, but were still a fairly new phenomenon.

     Blatant discrimination toward women was rampant in the academic world. The vast majority of part-time and non-tenured instructors in both women’s colleges and coeducational colleges were women. Rossiter comments that the same treatment “was quite rare for the men, who were not expected to start at the bottom, or if they did, to stay there very long.” (162) Some women, in an attempt to combat this, started studies and surveys to publicize the inequalities that women faced. Unfortunately, this eventually produced a survey whose results “blamed the few women in their departments for not being Madam Curies.” (166) Instead of dismissing this as ridiculous, feminist groups of the time “advised women to work harder to overcome their evident weaknesses… In this way, in Rossiter’s view, much of the scientific academic feminist movement of the early 1920s collapsed by 1924.”(167) After that, there was a massive decline in the percentage of women faculty in universities and colleges in the sciences.  

                         1920 United States Census 11th Precinct, Lane County, Eugene, Oregon.

     According to the 1920 Oregon Census, Lucile Copenhaver was born in Virginia in around 1897 to William M. Copenhaver and Addie S. Copenhaver. Lucile’s family moved to Springfield, Oregon before she was 5. She had 4 sisters: Lacy, Myrtle, Nellie, and Genevieve. She lived in Eugene Ward 1 for work and school, and Mill St. in Lane County with her mother. By 1920, her father died. The census also listed her as a teacher at university making a wage/salary. This census shows that she was around 23 years old and single.

“Oregon Normal School Sends 13 Teachers to Lane,” Sunday Oregonian, September 3, 1916, Sec: 1:12.

     In a Sunday Oregonian article on September 3, 1916, we see that she was offered a position in her hometown of Springfield the autumn after graduating from Oregon Normal School (now known as Western Oregon University). She was one of thirteen Normal School graduates to become teachers that year. According to the article, this is “the largest number of members of the last class to go into a single county in Oregon this Fall.” She was also one of five of her peers to teach in Springfield that year. The editors noted that “women far outnumber the men in this work” (‘this work’ meaning grade school teaching). This suggests that the article’s example ratio of 2:11 men to women wasn’t uncommon, but is notable enough to be mentioned explicitly.

University of Oregon 1921-1922 Catalogue and 1922-1923 Announcements (Eugene: University of Oregon, 1922), 16.










The University of Oregon 1921-1922 Catalogue and 1922-1923 Announcements for 1920 tells us that Copenhaver graduated from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Arts in 1920 (16). She was a graduate student from 1921-1923, and we know that her Masters Thesis was published in 1923.  (16) Copenhaver was an honors student, and thus had practice teaching college through being a teaching assistant and an instructor. (279, 109) We know from other entries in this Catalogue that she taught lower division Math including Solid Geometry and Analytical Geometry.

Lucile Copenhaver, “Runge’s Formula of Polynomial Interpolation” M.A. Thesis, University of Oregon, 1923, 19.

     On page 19 of Lucile Copenhaver’s University of Oregon Masters Thesis, “Theory of Interpolation,we see a small sample of her handwriting at the bottom of the page. This handwriting reads: “This may be seen more exactly when the ratio is put in a slightly different form.” This particular page is situated in an explanation of Runge’s Formula of Polynomial Interpolation. For reference, Ruge’s formula utilizes averaged slopes in order to find a function that approximates data or other values. On other pages, we see her handwritten additions, which compensated for the limitations of typewriters such as Greek letters, superscripts, and subscripts. She demonstrated on the previous page that Runge’s method does not work very well with logarithms when trying to go beyond a certain error threshold. The method to reduce error is taking more values, but since logarithms have an asymptote at zero, there were only so many points they could use while staying in the real number set. She reassures her readers that this method can be used on some infinite series, since they converge; convergence is good for calculating necessary pieces of the formula. On page 20 she discusses Ruge’s formula with imaginary numbers instead of just real numbers. In layman’s terms, page 19 was helping to show where the formula could and couldn’t easily be used.

“Miss Lucille Copenhaver,” Eugene Daily Guard, August 18, 1923, 10.

            In this Eugene Daily Guard article from August 18th 1923, we discover that Lucile Copenhaver “spent the past year taking work toward a Ph. D. degree in mathematics at the University of Chicago.” While the first doctorates were given to women in the late teens, by the mid twenties hiring women in academia fell out of fashion, so it would have been difficult for her to get her degree, and to use it in her field. We could not find any articles or other sources that would indicate that she completed her doctorate; we leave this for future historians to uncover. From other articles we know that she was working as a high school teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, likely to pay for her tuition and cost of living while she worked on her doctorate. She was working and trying to get a doctorate in mathematics as a woman in the 1920s. This shows how committed she was to her field, and strongly indicates that Copenhaver was a woman of bravery and optimism.

Copenhaver was an intelligent, and hardworking woman. She was someone who helped carve out a place for women in her society just by the virtue of living her life the way she wanted to. The few glimpses we see of her life seem to show a woman with a gift for and love of mathematics who would not allow society to limit her. In the years that she was a teacher, professor, and instructor, woman suffrage was becoming a reality. She was emblematic of the changing times, and in her own way, she had a hand in bringing about a new generation of empowered women. She was not an activist, or a groundbreaking scientist, but she was one of many intelligent young women who taught a very male-dominated subject at university, and by doing so, helped normalize women’s presence in academia. Unfortunately we do not know everything about her. We do not know if she completed her doctorate, if she taught at university again, if she had a family, or when she died. We hope that someone in the future will uncover more of this amazing story.

Primary Sources

Lucile Copenhaver, “Runge’s Formula of Polynomial Interpolation” M.A. Thesis, University of Oregon, 1923.

“Miss Lucille Copenhaver,” Eugene Daily Guard, August 18, 1923, 10.

“Oregon Normal School Sends 13 Teachers to Lane,” Sunday Oregonian September 3, 1916, Sec: 1:12.
“Teaching Faculty,” University of Oregon 1921-1922 Catalogue and 1922-1923 Announcements.

U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Fourteenth Census of The United States: 1920 Population, by John S. Wilurst. 11th Precinct, Lane County, Eugene, Oregon Census (1920)

Secondary Source

Rossiter, Margaret W. Women Scientists in America: Struggles and Strategies to 1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. 1982.

About the Author

Katelyn Rule participated in Professor Kimberly Jensen’s Winter 2018 Oregon Woman Suffrage course as a student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University. Katelyn is a Computer Science and Mathematics double major with interests in music, theater, history, books, space flight, and politics.