The First Woman to Earn a Rice Doctorate, 1929

I am asked a lot of questions (more than you can imagine, really) but this is the answer to a question that no one has ever asked. And in all honesty, I hadn’t thought to ask it myself. This was an accident. It began with a photograph, one that I’ve looked at a minimum of five dozen times, of the Math Department in 1927. Always, I was focused on the man in the dark suit, standing right in the middle of the picture. His name was Szolem Mandelbrojt and he was an important part of the history of Jews at Rice, which is one of my main preoccupations:

Last Thursday night, though, I was idly flipping through images on my laptop with no ideas already taking up space in my head. When I lit on it this time I was dumbstruck: where did that girl come from?

I had to dig hard but I found her. Her name is May Hickey. She was born in Lumberton, Mississippi to a family of small farmers but her father moved the family to Texas, first to the Dallas area and then to Houston, at least in part to take advantage of the free college education provided by the Rice Institute. All seven Hickey siblings attended Rice while their father, who hadn’t gone to high school, worked as a laborer for the railroad and an oil refinery. May was valedictorian of her class at Houston Heights High School and her principal made a prediction on the back of her Rice application:

He was right. When I found her records I was astonished. She was a brilliant student, her transcript covered in 1s. In the days before grade inflation, at a school where they weren’t particularly concerned about anything but performance, I’d never seen anything like it before. As an undergraduate she was an assistant in the Math department, an assistant in the English Department, and an assistant in the German Department. Two years in a row she earned the Graham Baker Award for the best student at Rice. After graduation she was appointed to a fellowship in the Math Department, teaching undergraduates while earning a masters in Math and Physics in 1927, and then her Ph.D. in Mathematics in 1929:

After her year of research in Germany Dr. Hickey returned to Mississippi where she was professor of mathematics at Delta State until 1938. That year she married Alfred Maria, who had been a Fellow in the Rice math department and her teacher when she was an undergraduate. In 1939 both Marias became faculty members at Brooklyn College. I’m very grateful to Colleen Bradley-Sanders at the Brooklyn College Archives for finding this photo of May Hickey Maria during her years there:

(George L. Bing Collection, Brooklyn College Special Collections and Archives).

Alfred Maria died in 1964 and May continued teaching at Brooklyn College until her retirement in 1975. She passed away in Austin in 2001 at the age of 96.

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17 Responses to The First Woman to Earn a Rice Doctorate, 1929

  1. Sandy Havens says:

    Wonderful story.

  2. Carolyn Mitchell says:

    Melissa, A fascinating life! Thank you for writing this.

    Carolyn E. Mitchell

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Bob Casey says:

    I was interested by the name Szolem Mandelbrojt. A little digging revealed that he was the uncle of Benoit Mandelbrot (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benoit_Mandelbrot) who worked on fractal geometry, including the Mandelbrot set, which was named in his honor.

    • Steve Lukingbeal, Hanszen 1976 says:

      I also looked up his name in the search index of ancestry.com. Even though there are hundreds of entries under the last name of Mandelbrot, there is only one entry with the first name Szolem. It was for his re-entry into the US following a trip to France in about 1956. I suspect he must have commonly used a different first name in the US.

  4. marmer01 says:

    Is Alfred in that picture?

  5. Philip Walters says:

    These are the kind of posts that keep me coming back for more!

  6. Karen says:

    Interesting, in addition to learning about May, I was curious about the principal, S. P. Waltrip. Turns out it’s Stephen Poole Waltrip, for whom Waltrip High School was named.

    • Kathleen (Lewis) Amen '71 says:

      Sorry, I was so excited on seeing the Waltrip name on the note that I overlooked someone else had already commented on my high school’s name.

  7. Rachel Dvoretzky says:

    A great story about an impressive scholar. (And, so my father wasn’t the first Rice student to earn the Graham Baker Award twice!)

  8. Ron Ladd says:

    I think this is wh

  9. Kathleen (Lewis) Amen '71 says:

    What caught my eye right away was the principal’s signature: I went to S.P. Waltrip Sr. High in Houston (we’re having our 50th reunion this summer!) and if I ever knew who SP Waltrip was, I’ve forgotten it now! Makes sense that he was at Heights High School, since Waltrip was the new school that took overflow from Reagan High School, which, probably, given the locations, had taken the overflow from Heights. Cool Houston educational history!

  10. degb00 says:

    This is kind of tangential, but sort of related, so I hope you’ll allow it.

    I am the family historian of my and my husband’s family. My husband, Don Bennett, is also a Rice Graduate (BSEE Wiess 1981). His parents’ families have a long history in Texas, both having arrived before Texas Independence.

    Don’s great-aunt was named Zenia Blanche Bennett (1898-1986), but went mostly by Blanche. Unlike the rest of her siblings, she left the small town of Yellow Pine, Texas, and moved to Houston. She married Rufus Grover and they had one daughter, Marjorie. From 1946 to 1968, Blanche Grover was a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Houston. There is even a Blanche B. Grover scholarship offered in her memory. http://www.uh.edu/nsm/math/undergraduate/scholarships/

    Yet, that is all I can find out about her. The 1940 census lists her occupation as public school teacher. I have used Google and cruised the U of H website looking for biography information about her, but found nothing. I’ve always wondered where she got her math degrees, why she was so notable at U of H, and how and when the Blanche B. Bennett scholarship was endowed. She really stands out from her siblings. One of her brothers ran the Yellow Pine Store, and the other worked at a gas station and was a farmer. Her two sisters married into other families of long standing in Sabine County, and as far as I know were farm wives or housewives.

    I know there is a great community of searchers of information out there reading this blog. Maybe you can help me find out more about her?

    • Michael Ross says:

      degboo – You might try to locate a UH course catalog publication from the time that she taught there. Those sorts of publications often list the faculty names with their alma maters, degrees and dates. Ask at the UH library or archives … or, perhaps, at the Clayton Center for Genealogical Research, 5300 Caroline St., Houston. Those locations may also have a more detailed biography of her and her curriculum vitae. Surely there is a file in the UH archives or math department about the creation of the scholarship in her honor, which might well give many professional and academic details.

      In the meantime, Google found for me some info that leds to learn that she earned at least bachelors and masters degrees at the University of Texas-Austin in 1921 and 1923, respectively:

      1) Blanche’s Find-a-Grave page (https://findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=136077231) said “By 1940 she had received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in mathematics, and was teaching in public school.”

      2) On page 198 of this document of 1923 UT Regents meeting minutes (http://www.utsystem.edu/borminutes/1881-1939/1923MINUTES.PDF), Mrs. Blanche Bennett Grover is listed as having received a Master of Arts degree from UT-Austin in 1923.

      3) This webpage about a photo of UT-Austin Physics faculty in 1917 (https://web2.ph.utexas.edu/utphysicshistory/UTexas_Physics_History/Physics_Faculty_1917.html) includes a photo from the 1921 Cactus (the UT-Austin yearbook) of “Zenobia Blanche Bennett (Hemphill, TX, … ), Tutor in Physics, 1922 Phi Beta Kappa.”) Could Zenia = Zenobia?

      4) On page 468 of this doecument of 1921 UT Regents meeting minutes (http://www.utsystem.edu/borminutes/1881-1939/1921MINUTES.PDF), she’s listed as getting a bachelors of arts degree in that year. On page 463 of this same document, there is a line noting $50 for “Bennett, Blanche Z.”, an “assistant” in the physics department.

      Best of luck in the rest of your search for information on your husband’s great aunt.

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