By: Cassie Heeke, Bicentennial Intern, Class of 2017, Journalism, Bloomington
Dr. Agnes Ermina Wells is the first individual to be honored in the Bicentennial’s Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Medicine) short film series. Wells, who trained as a mathematician and astronomer, also served as an educator, an administrator, and an advocate for equal rights for women.
As Dean of Women at Indiana University, she helped lead the initiative for women’s dormitories and supportive residential life.
Wells was born in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1876 and attended Arthur Hill High School. After graduating, she spent one year studying German in Dresden, Germany, before enrolling at Bryn Mawr College.
Wells transferred after a year to the University of Michigan, where she graduated in 1903 with a B.A. in mathematics. She spent the next decade in high school education before earning a Master’s degree in astronomy from Carleton College in 1916 and accepting a position as a faculty member at the University of Michigan.
While there, she was a social director for a residence hall and Acting Dean of Women for two summer sessions. In 1919, Wells transferred to Indiana University to become IU’s Dean of Women and an instructor of mathematics at the invitation of President William Lowe Bryan. At that time, enrollment at the Bloomington campus was around 2,300.
She achieved all of this before women were granted the right to vote in 1920.
Wells continued to pursue higher education during her career and earned a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Michigan in 1924. Her focus was on radial velocities, the speed at which objects move in space either toward or away from Earth, and her doctoral dissertation was titled “A Study of the Relative Proper Motions and Radial Velocities of Stars in the Pleiades Group.”
Wells was a member of the American Astronomical Society, and an obituary published in the 1959 proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science–which Wells joined in 1924–states she was a “most talented woman with considerable scientific ability.”
Despite her mathematical skills, Wells chose to focus much of her time and energy on young women: guiding them, improving their conditions at the university, and advocating for their increased status in society. Many sources credit her in part for the establishment of women’s dormitories on campus and a strong concern for their well being.
She also faced criticism for her strong views. In the late 1920s, she caused quite a controversy after implementing a “no bloomers, no classes” rule that required women to wear bloomers under their skirts and dresses at all times. Though faced with ardent backlash from students and newspapers across the state, Wells continued to enforce the rule.
In the many newspaper articles written about her, Wells comes through as a stubborn realist.
In a 1920 article in the Indianapolis Star, she praised IU graduates for their loyalty to IU and success in the workforce but was also quoted saying the following: “Like all the younger generation, our girls are clothes mad. There is an undue stress laid upon fads and styles. Then there is the clique spirit rather than the broader university spirit…Last year two girls graduated in the same senior class and had never met until they happened to teach in the same town of Illinois. This is just an example of the lack of friendship among students of the same class.”
At least when it came to female students, Wells did not seem to find value in sugarcoating anything. Decades later, she made the news in a similar manner:
Wells retired as Dean of Women in 1938 to become a full-time professor of mathematics and astronomy.
In 1944, she fully retired and was named Dean of Women Emerita. President Herman B Wells said of Agnes Wells at her retirement ceremony: “For 20 years Miss Wells has been more than a Dean of Women. Not only has she discharged the routine duties of her office with extraordinary skill and great success, but she also has worked diligently to further the program of education for women here and elsewhere. The beginning of our dormitory system for women is generally attributed to her farsighted and energetic leadership. Throughout all her administration she has maintained standards of scholarship and character of a very high order.”
A year before achieving emerita status, Wells joined the National Woman’s Party—originally formed in 1916 for the purpose of achieving women’s suffrage — and in 1949 she took over as chair of the organization. During her two-year term, she fought for an Equal Rights Amendment and went on a 12,000-mile speaking tour of the country to encourage others to support equal rights. She was 74 years old at the time.
Wells died in 1959 at the age of 83. Records from her life portray an intelligent, strong-willed woman who refused to be confined to any one STEM specialty or professional arena; she used her talents both to spread scientific knowledge and to make the world a better place for women at IU and across the country.
She was a leader in several organizations during her lifetime, including the American Association of University Women, the Business and Professional Women’s Club, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Faculty Women’s Club, and state and national deans’ associations.
Goodbody and Memorial Hall, half of the Wells Quadrangle, were rededicated as student housing in August 2017 in her honor.
Ed Miller; Jean Beach (2000). “Saginaw Hall of Fame, Biographical Sketches”. The Saginaw Hall of Fame – via Women Who Dare, site by historian Amy French of Delta College in University Center, Michigan.
Joy Harvey and Marilyn Oglivie, “The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century,” Routledge, 2000, Great Britain.
“Miss Agnes E. Wells Dies; Ex-Dean at I.U.” The Indianapolis Star. Indianapolis, Indiana. July 8, 1959. p. 11.
“Wells, Agnes Ermina, 1976-1959. Papers of Agnes Ermina Wells, 1894-1959: A Finding Aid,” Harvard University Library, accessed July 27, 2017, http://oasis.lib.harvard.edu/oasis/deliver/~sch00957.
Will E. Edington, “Necrology,” Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science, Vol. 69, p. 49, Wabash College, 1959.