Happy Birthday May Lansfield Keller, the Iron Dean of Westhampton College

May Lansfield Keller as a collegian. A charter member of the Maryland Alpha Chapter of Pi Beta Phi, she served as Grand President of the organization. Her arrow badge is somewhat visible in this photo.

“American Girl German Ph.D.” read the second page headline in a 1904 edition of the New York Times.   May Lansfield Keller had been awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Heidelberg.  The headline conveys both the esteem with which the German doctorate was held and the novelty of an “American girl” earning one.  The brief article mentioned none of the difficulties Keller faced as a woman in her quest for a doctorate.

May Lansfield Keller was born on September 28, 1877, in Baltimore, Maryland.  In 1894, she enrolled at the Woman’s College of Baltimore, now known as Goucher College.  Upon her graduation from the Woman’s College of Baltimore in 1898, it became clear to her father that Keller was adamant about pursuing graduate study.  Dr. Hans Froelicher, associate professor of French language and literature at the Woman’s College of Baltimore, was impressed by Keller’s ability and determination.  Froelicher was also the husband of Dr. Frances Mitchell Froelicher, a Woman’s College of Baltimore associate professor of German language and literature; she had earned her Ph.D. at the University of Zürich where she was the second woman to receive a Ph.D. (Knipp & Thomas, 1938).  Their influence was paramount in Keller’s decision to pursue graduate education at a German university.

Keller’s father was against her going to Germany and instead she entered the University of Chicago in the fall of 1898.  She did not appreciate the treatment women were getting at the University of Chicago.  According to Turnbull (1975), the final straw came when “A male professor cornered her and asked ‘Do you have to earn your own living?’ When she said no, he asked ‘Then why in heavens name don’t you stop and get married?’” (p. 19).

Keller won the argument and sailed for Germany in late 1900.  The excerpts of her letters are a glimpse into the German universities of the early 20th century and the difficulties encountered by the women students who dared enter that domain.  Her first stop was the University of Berlin, a popular spot for American students; of all American students in Germany between 1820 and 1920, about half spent at least one semester at Berlin (Thwing, 1928).

In a letter to her father she wrote, “Everyone has been extremely polite notwithstanding everything I have heard to the contrary.  It is understood, of course, in Germany — men first!”  In the same letter she noted that the men had been as polite if not more so than the men she encountered at the University of Chicago, “I don’t see how anybody in their senses could prefer Chicago after having studied any time in a German University” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, October 29, 1900).

The lectures were in German, and she stated that it was extremely hard to listen to five hours of German lectures.  The study was difficult and much was required of her.  During her first term in Berlin she had four grammars to study: Old Norse, Gothic, Anglo-Saxon, and Latin.  “I have literally swallowed a Gothic grammar and am working at present on Anglo-Saxon and Nordic which is the most difficult of all the Germanic dialects” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, November 4, 1900).  Later that month she wrote, “Old Norse will be the death of me yet.  It is the hardest thing I ever tackled and I wouldn’t flunk before 34 men for half America” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, November, 1900).

While at the University of Berlin, she was a member of the “Verein für studierende Frauen” [Woman’s Club].  The Berlin club was part of a larger group of several hundred women whose aim was better educational conditions for women.  The club at the University of Berlin had a secondary aim of bringing together the 374 women students to bi-monthly Tuesday night meetings in a beer hall.  “How strange it must sound to a western ear, and yet like most meetings of a similar character in Germany, the Woman’s Club finds its meeting place in a beer hall, the reason being, that no fixed sum is asked for the hall” (Keller, 1901, p. 209).

Keller decided to enroll at the University of Heidelberg, the oldest of the German universities; it was founded in 1386 (Heidtke, 1968).  During the 1890s, an average of 28 Americans were enrolled each year (Herbst, 1965).  Hence, Americans were in a minority.  Keller wrote about how frustrating an experience it was: “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 ever go near the univ.  Such red tape!” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, April 20, 1901).

The dean was not cooperative in her attempt to enroll. She kept her family informed, “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” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, April 20, 1901).  Classes were to start the next day and Keller decided she was going to attend everything as if she had full permission.  She told her family that another female student was afraid to try that tactic “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” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, April 20, 1901).

She evidently restrained herself as there is no mention of her having kicked the dean.  She was quite annoyed with him for he took her diploma and kept it for 10 days after the semester had begun and several days after lectures had started.  Keller, in what was considered to be a bold move followed through on her plan.  She went to the University on the first Monday of classes as if she had permission.  She, the “only woman visible in a perfect swarm of students,” returned triumphant.  By this gesture, she was so encouraged that she paid a visit to a professor, told her tale of woe about the dean and received permission to take his seminar and lecture work.  That semester, she had seven professors, 17 hours of classes, and two seminars.  This was in her estimation “enough to kill a mule, but never mind, I can stand it” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, May, 1901).

Keller told a story about one of the first professors she encountered at the University of Heidelberg: “Fischer Knus Fischer, the great Knus, the philosopher, the finest lecturer in any German university, and who hates women worse than he would a poisoned toadstool, was simply hateful.  He is ‘Exzellenz’ and must ever be called ‘Excellence’ on all occasions.  The prof. of hist. warned us not to go to call at his house for his signature but to tackle him at the univ., which we did on Friday afternoon.  The old fellow yelled, ‘Herein’ [come in] when we knocked, and we walked in to find him stretched comfortable on his back on a sofa.  All I saw was a pair of feet flying through the air, a vigorous jump, and there he stood positively glaring at us. Instantly he demanded, ‘Well, have you got permission?’ On assuring him that we had, he bawled ‘67’ at Miss Van M [her friend from the Woman’s College of Baltimore, Johnetta Van Meter], ‘68’ to me, then jumped on me and told me my paper was not made out properly.  That made me mad, and I responded very promptly that it was.  After a warm discussion he found what he was looking for in exactly the right place.  Then he sighed, pushed the paper forward, and grunted, ‘Here take them, good day.’  Wasn’t he a peach?  I laughed in the very room as it was all so perfectly absurd”  (M. L. Keller, personal communication, May, 1901).

In June, 1901, she wrote home “The novelty of being the only woman reciting before a class full of men is somewhat wearing off before the fire of questions which the beloved prof. hurl at my American head” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, June, 1901).

By November, 1901, she was entrenched in her studies, “There are four of us women here all working for the doctors and every one in trouble over her third minor because all Germanic or Germanic and English together is not allowed for a Ph.D. (M. L. Keller, personal communication, November, 1901).

Her father inquired about the requirements of her doctoral program.  She elaborated: “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” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, March 17, 1902).

In April of 1902 she apprised her family of her progress.  Keller had not yet received her dissertation subject.  She estimated that the quickest she could be done was July 1903, “but if I find another two or three months would give me better preparation and a higher grade I shall wait until Oct.” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, March 27, 1902).  She seemed apprehensive, yet determined when she told her father, “I have creepy sensations about my spinal column when I think of that exam and the worst of it is everybody here expects me to do something, so I can’t simply crawl out with the lowest number.  Oh, if there wasn’t such a thing as a Ph.D.  I should be happier I think, or rather the exam for the Ph.D.”  (M. L. Keller, personal communication, March 27, 1902).

It was difficult being one of the few women in the program at the University of Heidelberg.  Keller sometimes conveniently forgot to tell her parents news as this letter indicated, “I didn’t tell you beforehand because I didn’t know how the thing was going to turn out, but now that everything has turned out so well, I will tell you of my latest piece of audacity.  You know they are getting stricter over here all the time and the rules for women are as bad as they can be.  There has been an awful fuss about our being here so on the strength of that Hoops made a new rule demanding a thesis on a grammatical subject and an oral examination from every person desiring to enter his seminar this semester, who was not already an active member of the course.  Not a woman applied except myself, and not a single foreigner (not even the American men here with English as their major).  After I applied I was scared to death for I got an awful subject in a dialect I had never seen – that didn’t phase [sic] me, I worked like a trooper, and received notification last Tuesday that I would have to meet the gentleman after 6:30 to be examined – that was at 3:30.  I went, he put me through my paces, handed me back my essay and said, ‘I take great pleasure in admitting you unconditionally as a member of my seminar, furthermore I will tell you that you are the only one of the applicants unconditionally admitted and the others are men.’ I was tickled to death — he told me my grasp of the subject (dialect unknown until 7 weeks ago) and that all the other people would have to pass another examination at the end of the semester” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, May, 1902).

Dissertation titles were assigned rather than chosen freely, but Keller did have a choice of two subjects, either “Weapons in Anglo-Saxon” 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.  She was quite concerned about finances, so she made the switch to the technical subject.  Keller kept her father informed about her dissertation research, “I can hardly tell you, for working it up involves handling it from 6 different sides:

“1st.  The etymology of all the words – thereby proving whether the weapons were of Indo-Germanic, West Germanic, Slavish, Celtic, or Anglo-Saxon origin, sometimes involving the use of 17 different languages.  Call it fun if you like!

“2nd.  An accurate knowledge of all the Latin and Greek historians who have handled the subject of Teutonic wars from Tacitus to the 9th Cent. writers.

“3rd.  Must give citations from the Anglo-Saxon poets — including every mention of every single weapon in the whole range of Anglo-Saxon literature; also all the Latin glossaries.

“4th.  A study of the Latin laws of Charlemagne and all the early Eng. laws.

“5th.  The architecture of the Anglo-Saxon and Teutonic peoples including all grave finds in Germany, Eastern France, Denmark, Switzerland, and England

“6th.  Accurate deductions from the above, descriptions of weapons and a culture history backed up by all the evidence.

“Is that a job or not?” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, May, 1903.)

In October, 1903 when she was almost finished with her research and dissertation, she wrote her family, “I have yet to turn it into German and to verify results, then copy it, which means several weeks yet of hard work.  Then Hoops will tear it all to pieces, find mistakes, make me do it all over again, and that will take still more time” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, October, 1903).

By November, 1903, the strain of completing her dissertation had become quite evident, “This is simply to announce the fact that I am still living and very well except for the fact that I have nearly written my eyes out this week trying to get my Arbeit [dissertation] ready to send in” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, November, 1903).  She told of having to copy and rewrite some 500 or 600 pages of manuscript.  The final copy for the printer would have to be typed, and she would find a professional to type it.  According to her letter, she had written five to seven hours a day from the first of September.

She did not tell her parents of the physical toll being exacted by her dissertation until she was almost done.  In mid-November, 1903, she was almost ready to hand her dissertation in; the introduction was 140 pages and the main part was over 300 pages, and that was in a single spaced handwritten copy.  She had copied the entire work by hand in two weeks time, attended classes, and prepared for recitations.  In the middle of this two week period, “I burst one of the blood vessels in my left eye . . . . and as I had to keep up with work, it took some time to get better” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, November, 1903).

And just as she was ready to hand the dissertation in, she “discovered three or four new books, everyone of which has to be gone through; it is really enough to drive me crazy” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, December, 1903).  But she made short work of those few books, for on December 20, 1903 she wrote, “Last Wed. I handed over my thesis, the result of one of the hardest years work I ever did, and if it is accepted it is NO CREDIT TO MY HEAD PROF., who didn’t give me one bit of advice, and doesn’t know one word that is in it.  That is German — he is too busy to bother with his students; if they have brains to work out something of their own — good! If not they must simply go under.  Will wait until and see how they flunk me, and let you know the result — anyway it is out my hands” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, December 20, 1903).

Her head professor, Dr. Johannes Hoops of the University of Heidelberg’s Department of English Philology, seemed to be shirking his responsibilities.  Early in 1904 she wrote, “Hoops has colossal nerve — the man, I am convinced has not looked at my Arbeit, and because it was so well written, and well divided into sections, etc., he concluded it must be good, and has allowed me to present it to the committee without a single correction” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, January, 1904).  She was concerned that others would find mistakes Hoops should have caught first.  Keller was also concerned because the other six women working on their Ph.D.s had to work the dissertations 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”  (M. L. Keller, personal communication, January, 1904).

She would take her doctoral exam in March, but would not tell her parents the date beforehand.  Ever frugal, she would cable “one word — Doctor — if I come through, and nothing if I fall through, which is very probable” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, January, 1904).  Several weeks later she wrote her mother, “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” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, February, 1904).

She told her mother that she would be required to translate from three foreign tongues at sight, and answer dozens of questions.  She was to be examined by the pro-rector of the University, “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” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, February, 1904).

On February 24, 1904, she passed her doctoral examinations magna cum laude.  True to her word and conscious of every cent, she cabled her parents the next day.  Only one word was transmitted, “Doctor” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, February 25, 1904).

A letter outlining her ordeal followed, “The week before I lived in purgatory for two women had their theses refused. . . . and two days before her examination Fräulein Stroebe had her Arbeit thrown back on her hands, and has not yet been admitted to the exam” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, February, 1904).  By her own account, she “expected a ‘rite’ and I came out with feathers flying, congratulated by all the professors . . . . with ‘magna cum laude’ — the highest a foreigner ever makes” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, February, 1904).

If her exam proved to be successful, she had planned on hosting a Kneipe, a students’ celebration party.  She decided this wouldn’t be proper because her good friends had such misfortune with their pursuit of the doctorate, “that out of eight women, Frau Eckhardt and I are the only survivors, and she hasn’t yet been let in” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, February, 1904).  She did get to celebrate; a torch light procession was held for Keller and her friend Eckhardt, who was ultimately successful in completing her Ph.D.

In a March, 1904 letter to her father, the post script gave full information on the title and scope of her research, “Title of Arbeit — The Anglo-Saxon Weapon Names — with an Archaeological Investigation of the Weapons of Attack and Defense in use among the Anglo-Saxons from the 5th century to the time of the Norman Conquest — That’s for a starter.

“Scope of Arbeit — First an archaeological investigation of the grave fields of England, Germany and France, principally those of Kent in England, Letzen in Germany and Londonières in Normandy, followed by an etymological explanation of the words to their source in Indo-German and references to every passage as they occur in the entire Anglo-Saxon Lit.

“That meant reading all the Greek and Latin church fathers, all the old Psalters, and digging and poking around in most of the museums of Europe — Paris, Great Britain, Wien, Munich, etc., sticking my nose, too, into Slavish, Celtish, etc.  The exam included the entire range of English phil. and literature, Norse phil. and lit. (including Old Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic), something of the Old High German, Middle High German, Gothic and Romance phil., Vulgar Latin, and a thorough knowledge of Old French with the necessary lesser acquaintance with Provencal and old dialects descended from the Latin together with French Lit. The philology of three peoples, their literature, and some dozen dialects in French and English . . . . will tell you more when I come home.” (M. L. Keller, personal communication, March, 1904)

May Lansfield Keller, Ph.D.

After she returned from Heidelberg in summer of 1904, Keller accepted a position as a professor of German at Wells College in Aurora, New York.  When, in 1906, Goucher College offered her a job as a professor of English, she made the move back to Baltimore (Turnbull, 1975).  In 1914, she was named Dean at the newly formed Westhampton College, the coordinate of Richmond College [now the University of Richmond] (Alley, 1977).

Westhampton College opened on September 17, 1914 with 82 students (Alley, 1977).  Keller spent the next 32 years at Westhampton and retired in June, 1946 (Alley, 1977).  Donaldson (1968) noted that Keller had a definite goal when she accepted the position at Westhampton College, “She was determined that Westhampton should be a liberal arts college in the true sense of the word.  Its entrance requirements, its curriculum, and its standards must be of the highest.  It must compare with the great women’s colleges of the East” (p. 383).

The eulogy by Florence Boston Decker, Westhampton College class of 1917, former Alumnae Association president and 28-year University of Richmond Trustee stated, “Dean Keller never lost sight of the needs of her student body and her faculty.  The students knew of her singleness of purpose.   They were conscious of her outstanding character — integrity! . . . Dean Keller was Westhampton” (Rosenbaum, 1989, p. 97).



Alley, R. E. (1977). History of the University of Richmond: 1830-1971. Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia.

Donaldson, J. O. (1968). A century of friendship in Pi Beta Phi 1867-1967. St. Louis, MO: Pi Beta Phi Fraternity.

Heidtke, W. M. (1968). An American looks at the University of Heidelberg. Heidelberg: Heidelberger Verlagsanstalt und Druckerei.

Herbst, J. (1965). The German historical school in American scholarship. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Keller, M. L. (July, 1901). The Woman’s Club of the University of Berlin. THE ARROW, pp. 209-213.

Knipp, A. H., & Thomas, T. P. (1938) The history of Goucher College. Baltimore, MD: Goucher College.

American girl German Ph.D. (1904, April 14). New York Times, p. 2.

Rosenbaum, C. M. (1989). A gem of a college: The history of Westhampton College 1914-1989. Richmond, VA: William Byrd Press.

Talbot, M., & Rosenberry, L. K. (1931). The history of the American Association of University Women 1881-1931. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Thwing, C. F. (1928). The American and the German university: One hundred years of history. New York: MacMillan Company.

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

May Lansfield Keller’s letters are available in the Virginia Baptist Historical Society’s Archives which are located at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Virginia.

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