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Revisiting Beulah I. Shoesmith

On the MathNEXUS website five years ago, I posted some thoughts about Beulah I. Shoesmith (1880-1959), an exemplary mathematics teacher. I never knew Beulah, but "met" her via people's descriptions of her on other websites. Please read the previous linked info about Beulah before proceeding.

Then, SERENDIPITY struck recently, when someone (F.R.) wrote to me (five years after original post) about Beulah and my comments. The person was a former student of Beulah's, and he had some additional information to share (which he game me permission to share as well).

I have read your excellent story about Miss Beulah I. Shoesmith several times. I was also one of those fortunate students who had the privilege of attending her math classes at Hyde Park high School in the 'forties. I do also remember Herb Hyman who wrote the article....

There are of course many things that could be added to the story of Miss Shoesmith. One is the fact that she was so good at teaching mathematics that on her retirment from the Chicago Public Schools she took up teaching at Illinois Institute of Technology (then called Armour Institute of Technology). Incidentally, I recall that it was Miss Shoesmith who advised me to try for a scholarship at Armour. Following her advice, I did receive the scholarship and was off on a lifelong career as a PhD engineer.

The attribution of the world "Isosceles" to be the real meaning of her middle initial has a little more to it than is told in your story. Every term, Miss Shoesmith presented her new class in Plane Geometry with a problem that at most a few of the better students were able to solve. The proof is not easy and requires an indirect proof approach. (Indirect as in "Suppose the triangle were not isosceles," etc. and then end up with a contradiction.) [NOTE: The problem is included as my Problem-of-the-Week.]

I should add that whenever Miss Shoesmith was asked the meaning of her middle initial and she replied with the "isosceles" story, she always had a smirk on her face as if that was merely an excuse for something else. Since the $2 million (1950 dollars) that she had made on the stock market was not discovered until after her death some years later, I have often thought that in her mind the "I" might have stood for "investor," a fact that she would never have admitted to anyone. ....

If you told me that you had a math teacher of whom Miss Shoesmith reminds you, I would try hard to believe you. If you tell me that she reminds you of several math teachers you had, I have to become somewhat skeptical. So far as I know, Miss Shoesmith is unique in her field.

....Miss Shoesmith was truly one of a kind. All the students, at least those who were interested in learning something, recommended her highly to those who were looking to make a choice of math classes. She has very strongly affected my life career as an engineer by suggesting to me to try for a scholarship at Armour Tech and I shall always be grateful to her for this advice.

Best regards. F.R.

It is special events like this that make my production of this web site so worth while. And, I am so glad that F.R. took the time to not only write to me, but also took the time to do research on his favorite mathematics teacher.

Also, a side note. The Chicago school system has named a school in her memory, the Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School (1330 East 50th Street, Chicago, Illinois 60615). AND, in the 2008 election cycle, Barack Obama cast his vote for President in the gym/auditorium at this same school.

Ah, sweet serendipity!