Decima Eveline Robinson

U of A's First Science Grad:
Decima Eveline Robinson, '11 BSc, '12 MSc

Born in Brighton, England, Decima Robinson emigrated to Edmonton with her parents as a child. She was brilliant in school and excelled at math. But when it came time for university there was, as yet, no post-secondary schooling available in western Canada. And so in 1906 – the year the new Alberta legislature passed the first University Act – Robinson’s parents sent her to study at London University in England. When the U of A began classes in 1908, they called her back home to finish her degree in Edmonton.

Robinson was one of three undergraduates — and the only woman — with advanced standing. The others were Albert James Law, ’11 BA, and Robert Howard Dobson, ’11 BA, ’14 MA. She was also the only one seeking a bachelor of science degree. Forty years after graduation, she recalled her first day of class: “My spirits were rather low on registration day, for I couldn’t help contrasting my former hopes for a career as a student at Cambridge with the realities, as I pictured them, of a brand new university in the Far West.”

But Robinson’s forebodings disappeared once she met her classmates and professors, led by the inimitable President Tory, a gold medalist in mathematics from McGill. “I doubt that even now, forty years later, the university could give a better four years’ course than we received,” she wrote. “I feel that I owe a tribute of thanks to Doctors Tory and Sheldon for my life-long interest in mathematics, to Doctor Lehman for his friendly and competent guidance in chemistry, and to Doctor Broadus for his unequalled lectures in english.” Robinson graduated with a major in mathematics. In those early years, the U of A published every student’s grades in the University Calendar where her high marks earned her the nickname “Calculus Maid.” But she wasn’t to be a “maid” for long. Although all seven women in that first class formed the Society of Independent Spinsters – vowing not to marry so that they could pursue careers after graduation – Robinson was not to keep her vow. She fell in love with the 1912 class president, a handsome philosopher and mathematician by the name of Edwin T. Mitchell, ’12 BA, ’13 MA. The couple married in 1915.

Mitchell took his PhD in philosophy from the University of Chicago, after which the couple moved to Texas where Mitchell taught at University of Texas at Austin from 1923 - 1952. Both Robinson and Mitchell kept in close touch with their U of A professors and fellow students, often returning to Edmonton in the summers to renew friendships and visit with family and their beloved alma mater. Edwin Mitchell passed away in 1953; Decima Robinson passed in 1962.

- Ellen Schoeck,’72 BA, ’77 MA