The George Washington University (GW) was established in 1821, when President James Monroe approved the congressional charter creating the Columbian University, the initial name of the George Washington University. In 1884, the Corcoran Scientific School opened its doors at the university, after the philanthropist William Corcoran provided a gift to establish the school. The Corcoran Scientific School, which eventually would be renamed the School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS), was intended to be a polytechnic school designed after the Boston Institute of Technology.
The first graduating class comprised six students. Two of them were women: Elizabeth Preston Brown and Louise Connolly. Mrs. Brown was a noted mathematician, and Ms. Connolly a noted geologist.
Mrs. Brown, a high school teacher, reserved part of her salary to “improve herself” and entered The Corcoran Scientific School, where she studied with mathematics professor James Howard Gore, verifying his calculations, a job classified as ‘computer’. According to an 1892 article from The Daily Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), she was encouraged to enter a contest for a position at the Nautical Almanac. The newspaper notes “Within three hours after the examination began every man left the room vanquished by the astronomical and mathematics problems”. Miss Brown answered every question and solved every problem in less than five hours.
Ms. Connolly, also a high school teacher, received two degrees from the school. She was regarded as one of the city’s most progressive teachers and often spoke at meetings of the National Education Association and the Geographic Society.
Marjorie Rhodes Townsend was the first woman to graduate from GW with an engineering degree. Born in 1930, she enrolled in college at 15 and received her degree in 1951. In 1957 she told The Washington Post, “The thought seems to lurk in people’s minds that women go into a man’s field to catch a husband. In fact, there was a wager on the line when I went to school that I would get married and never graduate. That gentleman had to pay” up. In 1959, Mrs. Townsend became one of the first female engineers to join NASA, and in the next decade, she was named the first female spacecraft project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.
SEAS led the nation in the percentage of doctoral degrees awarded to women in 2003, according to the American Society for Engineering Education. The University tied the University of Illinois at Chicago for first place in the rankings, with women representing 31.4 percent of new engineering doctoral degrees at both institutions. (ASEE Prism Magazine, October 2004)
Dr. Mona Zaghloul, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has achieved many firsts in her career. In 1975, she earned her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Waterloo (Canada), the first woman to earn a doctorate in engineering from Waterloo. She joined the GW faculty in 1980 as an assistant professor and as the first female appointed to the SEAS faculty.
Dr. Christine Mann Darden, who rose from data analyst at NASA's Langley Research Center to become leader of the agency's Sonic Boom Team, earned her doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from GW in 1983. Now a retired NASA director and aerospace engineer, Dr. Darden is an internationally recognized authority in the field of sonic-boom minimization. Known as one of NASA’s “human computers” in the 60s and 70s, Dr. Darden’s story features in the 2016 bestseller, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. Bipartisan legislation would bestow the Congressional Gold Medal on Darden, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, “and all the women computers, mathematicians, and engineers at NASA, and its precursor organization the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA).”