Women's History Month Part 4: Dr. Evelyn Merle Nelson

October 25, 2017

Written by: Alicen Ricard

For the last installment of the Women’s History Month series we’re profiling a woman in math, Dr. Evelyn Merle Nelson who was quite accomplished in her field of algebra.

Source: McMaster University

Dr. Evelyn Merle Nelson was born in Hamilton, Ontario in 1943. Her parents were Russian immigrants who had settled down in Canada. They were very supportive of their daughter entering the field of mathematics, even though it was difficult for women to get into it at the time. They wanted to support her financially as well, but they didn’t need to because she kept getting scholarships. She attended grade thirteen at Westdale High School in Hamilton and then went on to attend the honors Mathematics-Physics-Chemistry program at the University of Toronto.

After two years there she ended up back in Hamilton to attend McMaster, where she completed the rest of her education. She got her Bachelor of Science in mathematics in 1965 (graduating at the top of her class). She then completed her Masters in mathematics in 1967. Her thesis was “A finiteness criterion for partially ordered semigroups and its application to Universal Algebra”, which ended up being her first published paper (It was published in the Canadian Journal of Mathematics). She also completed her Ph.D in 1970 at McMaster but she decided to do it in four years instead of two. She gave birth to her first daughter while writing her thesis for her doctorate. This thesis was “The lattice of equational classes of commutative semigroups”, which was also published in the Canadian Journal of Mathematics.

Source: Wikipedia

 After she got her doctorate she worked at McMaster as a post-doctorate researcher until she got promoted to research associate. In 1978 she was appointed to associate professor. By 1983 she became a full professor. She was teaching while she was pregnant with her second daughter and taught right up to the day of the birth. She was able to balance her work-life with being a single parent to two daughters. While she was a professor she chaired the Unit of Computer Science from 1982 to 1984. She was also on a number of committees. She was asked to return to chair the Unit of Computer Science again but her health was getting worse and she declined.

She was a fantastic teacher but her real area of passion was her research. Over twenty years she had forty papers published. The first five she wrote all focused on the research topic of her thesis—lattices of certain equational classes. Then the next ten were inspired by the work of Walter Taylor and centered on equational or atomic compactness. The next twelve papers didn’t focus on one topic as much as they focused on different questions that have a categorical viewpoint and universal algebra motivation. Finally, the majority of the remaining papers were about partially ordered universal algebra, subject to conditions concerning specified joints originating in theoretical computer science.  

Source: Springer

Along with writing papers she peer reviewed for ten different journals. She also wrote close to 100 reviews. She was the editor of Algebra Universalis, as well. She was also a sought out speaker and presented at almost thirty lectures outside of Canada. She worked right up until she died of cancer in 1987 at the age of 43. After her death a personal retrospective about Evelyn's life was published in Algebra Universalis, talking about her work and her impact on algebra. She proved semigroups with certain generating sets are finite, along with exploring which groups are finiate and which are infinite.    Since her death the Canadian Mathematical Society gives out the CMS Kriegar-Nelson Prize for Distinguished Research by Women in Mathematics in honor of Evelyn and another Canadian mathematician, Cecilia Kriegar.

Let us know your favourite historical woman in STEM on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and make sure to read parts one, two, and three of the Women's History Month series.