May Lansfield Keller: American Girl, German Ph.D.

This post is courtesy of Historian Fran Becque as part of her continuing series on Pi Phi heritage.

3359 - MLK robes“American Girl German Ph.D.” is a second page headline in a 1904 edition of The New York Times. May Lansfield Keller was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg but nothing is told of the struggle she faced as a woman in her quest for a doctorate.

May was born September 28, 1877 in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1894, she enrolled at the Women’s College of Baltimore (in 1910, it became Goucher College). She was a charter member of Maryland Alpha. After graduation in 1898, she was intent on studying in a German university. May’s father persuaded her to remain in the United States so she entered the University of Chicago. She left after two quarters. Her father did not want her to go abroad, but May was insistent. She sailed for Germany in late 1900. The excerpts of her letters offer a glimpse into German universities in the early 1900s and the difficulties encountered by the women who dared enter that domain. Her first stop was the University of Berlin, but she truly wanted to be at Heidelberg.

In an April 20, 1901 letter she wrote about her attempt to enroll at the University of Heidelberg, “We interviewed the dean yesterday & he is hostile to women … I cannot tell yet what I am going to study as I have to interview every prof., have his permission to attend his lectures, a written permission from the philological faculty and also the dean before I can even go near the univ. Such red tape!”

On April 28, 1901, Pi Beta Phi’s Founders’ Day, she wrote to her family, “I can tell you nothing about my work yet. As I told you the dean is hostile to women and has been nasty – keeping all my papers, diploma, everything, and telling me I would have to wait and do nothing until he saw the faculty and returned them which he has failed to do. The work begins tomorrow, and I am simply going to attend everything as if I had full permission. What the result will be, I don’t know. Johnetta (another female student) is afraid to try it, but I don’t care. They are only German profs, not lords of the realm and I am an American citizen with a passport but no diploma at present. It is awfully aggravating and I could kick the old gentleman for being so slow.”

Her father inquired about the requirements of her doctoral program. She elaborated in a letter dated March 17, 1902, “You asked me exactly what is required for my doctorate and in what I shall make it: Major – Anglo-Saxon, Middle English, New English. First Minor – Old Norse, including Gothic and Ur-Germanisch Grammar. Second Minor – Old French, Middle and New French, including Latin, of course. In Old Norse, of course, is included a thorough knowledge of German so that by the time you get the major and minors down with what they include, it means a study of every single branch of the Germanic language including its near relative the English and French from the present to the time of the Romans, including Latin.”

Dissertation titles were assigned rather than chosen freely, but May did have a choice of two subjects, either “The Anglo-Saxon Weapon. Names treated archaeologically and etymologically” or the literary subject, “Paulo and Francesca in the Light of World Poetry.” Although she started on the literary subject, she realized it would take her two years longer to finish. May was quite concerned about finances, so she made the switch to the technical subject.

She wrote home again, “Tomorrow the date for the exam will be set, and I can thank my lucky stars that I am the only woman who has escaped the plucking in regard to the Arbeit. Every other one (6 others) has had to work hers over two or three times – how I ever escaped I don’t know, but my time will come later when Hoops reads the thing in order to give me my mark – then, ye gods & little fishes. The exam will come some time in March – just when I am not going to tell you, but will cable the one word – Doctor – if I come through, and nothing if I fall through, which is very probable.”

In another letter written at about the same time, she added, “Before very long … you will hear whether the profs. have flunked me, in which case I shall go to Italy, and try it again in July. It is largely a question of luck whether I get a text I have seen before or not. Just think, translation from 3 foreign tongues at sight, dozens of questions, etc. Do you wonder if I am anxious as to whether I shall get through or not? I shall be examined by the pro-rector of the Universitat, the man next to the Gross-Herzog in Baden, and the head of the Univ. of Heidelberg,a great honor, but the gentleman has the reputation of being the hardest examiner in Germany. I have done my work under another prof. and I must say my chances are slim.”

On February 24, 1904, May passed her doctoral examinations Magna Cum Laude. True to her word and conscious of every cent spent, she cabled her parents the next day. Only one word was transmitted: “Doctor.”

Source material: Turnbull, P. (1975).
May Lansfield Keller: Her life and letters.
Verona, VA: McClure Press.

Miss Onken and the 1931 South Carolina Alpha Installation

This post is courtesy of Historian Fran Becque as part of her continuing series on Pi Phi heritage.

Amy Burnham Onken was born in Chapin, Illinois, on September 24, 1885. She lived her entire life in Chapin except for her years at Northwestern University. She became Pi Phi’s Grand Secretary in 1912 and spent eight years in that role. She then became Grand President and remained in that position for 31 years.

Amy Burnham Onken

Amy Burnham Onken presided over the 1931 South Carolina Alpha Installation.

She served her first term as Pi Beta Phi’s National Panhellenic Conference (NPC) delegate in 1928, a position she held until 1953. From 1945-47, she served as NPC Chairman. Several important changes were made during her term as Chairman.

Miss Onken, as she was called, installed 38 chapters. Among the chapters she installed is one of another Grand President, Sarah Ruth “Sis” Mullis. Side note: Sis’ birthday is September 20 and she no doubt had one of the best birthday presents ever — a giant New Member class who will become the charter members of the revitalized South Carolina Alpha Chapter.

But let’s go back to the 1931 installation of South Carolina Alpha. It took place on October 8-10, 1931. The local organization, Gamma Sigma, had sought a Pi Phi charter for a number of years, since the university revoked its ban on fraternities in 1927.

In the spring of 1930, Miss Onken visited the group. The province president and representatives from North Carolina Alpha and Tennessee Alpha visited in the fall and Gamma Sigma was given the go-ahead to proceed with a formal petition. The petitions were sent and the vote at convention was in the affirmative. The Gamma Sigmas were overjoyed when they received the telegram telling them of the convention vote.

Miss Onken’s hand guided the installation ceremonies. They began on Thursday afternoon with the pledging ceremony over which she presided. A Cookie Shine followed the pledging ceremony. On Friday morning, initiation took place in the recreational rooms of the First Presbyterian Church. A luncheon at the church followed. In the afternoon, the alumnae members were initiated. Miss Onken officiated at both initiation ceremonies.

SC Alpha banquiet photo

The photo was featured in the November 1931 edition of The Arrow.

The installation banquet took place on Friday evening. It was held in the Crystal Room of the Hotel Columbia. The tables were in the shape of the Greek letter “pi.”

On Saturday morning, 23 Gamma Sigma pledges were repledged to Pi Beta Phi by Miss Onken. It was followed by the chapter’s first official meeting. During the meeting, “Miss Onken gave in her own inimitable way, an inspiring, loving talk to the members of the new chapter, which will never be forgotten.” The chapter meeting was followed by a luncheon given by the patronesses of the chapter. That afternoon the Tri Deltas entertained the Pi Phis at a tea in the Hotel Columbia, On Saturday night, the chapter gave a reception and dance to the faculty, friends and townspeople. It took place at the Ridgewood Country Club. Coffee was poured by the chapter’s patronesses and the mothers of the initiates. Dancing took place from 10 p.m. until midnight.

Several other events took place the following week. The report of the festivities published in The Arrow noted that “everyone regretted that Miss Onken had left on Sunday, for her sweet presence and gentle guiding influence had made her the indispensable part of the installation. Our twenty-three pledges considered themselves singularly fortunate that Miss Onken conducted their pledge service on Saturday…The initiates also appreciated their wonderful opportunity of hearing Miss Onken conduct the pledge service three times, each time gaining over the preceding one in its impressive meaning.”

Interestingly, Sis’ first convention in 1962 as a recent initiate was Miss Onken’s last convention. Sis treasures the opportunity to have met both Miss Onken and May L. Keller. Miss Onken died in 1963.


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