Dr. Agnes Mathilde Wergeland (1857-1914) was the first Norwegian-born woman to earn a doctorate—but not in Norway, where achieving a doctorate was unlikely for a woman. Her 1890 Ph.D. was from the University of Zurich in Switzerland on the history of Icelandic and Old Norse inheritance laws.
She also pioneered as a well-educated professional woman who came to America in 1890. Most single Norwegian women in American had immigrated to become maids, so her profession set her apart but forced her to defy stereotypes.
She became the head of the UW history department in 1902. When she died 12 years later, she was memorialized with a book of her life written by Maren Michelet (1869-1932), a Minnesota-born promoter of all things Norwegian in American life. A monument to Dr. Agnes Wergeland has been erected in Norway. The 200th anniversary of Norwegian emigration to America will be celebrated in 2025, so interest in the accomplishments of Dr. Wergeland is mounting.
The circle of Laramie friends that Dr. Wergeland was able to fall in with in 1902 was a contrast to the solitary life she led in Europe. Her father was absent, and her mother was a sort of manager at an asylum. As a child, she grew up on the grounds of the hospital with few people her own age. She showed an early interest in art, music and literature, but her mother did not favor those and steered her to a teaching career as a governess.
She graduated from Norway’s governess school at Nissen Pikeskole in 1878. It was the highest level of education a woman could obtain in Norway. The University of Christiania in her hometown allowed her access to books on history and the arts for independent study though she was not an enrolled student. She obtained music lessons, and for over a year studied piano with the “giant” of Norwegian musicians, Edvard Greig, before he became famous as the composer of the Peer Gynt suites.
By 1883, with no job prospects, she was ready to move on, and went to the University of Munich, where her brother was studying and practicing art. Her studies centered on Scandinavian history. From there she went to the University of Zurich, receiving a Ph.D. in 1890.
DOORS OPENED FOR WERGELAND
Bryn Mawr College, a Pennsylvania women’s college founded by Quakers in 1885, offered Dr. Wergeland a fellowship in history in 1890 and she eagerly immigrated to America. From there she taught history at the University of Illinois and then the University of Chicago.
Then UW offered her a position as head of the history department in 1902. For the ambitious Wergeland, the ability to teach a variety of courses, to head a department at a growing university, and to publish poetry in her native language brought satisfaction that she knew she would never have been able to achieve in Europe.
She became an American citizen in 1909, saying to friends that “Norway has nothing for me,” though she did make one nostalgic trip back to Norway around 1910. She brought Norwegian customs to her new American friends, like putting grain sheaves out for the birds in winter, having a garden, and a summer cabin.
Wergeland was featured in at least two MS theses published by the University of Oslo, Lise Løken’s in 1996 and Kari-Anne Fekjær’s in 2007. Fekjær wrote that Wergeland loved what she called “mountain air” and says she “cared for the birds in her garden, loved trees, and the beautiful view from her balcony.” Dr. Wergeland’s poetry often used nature as subject matter. She bought land in the Snowy Range and had a cabin built, which she named Enebo (“hermitage” in Norwegian). Precious summer hours were spent there with Dr. Grace Raymond Hebard and Hebard’s sister, a Cheyenne schoolteacher. The cabin is still standing above Centennial.
ADAPTS TO UW
As history department chair at UW, she remained in Laramie until her untimely death at the age of 57. She spoke five languages and taught both French and Spanish at UW as well as history, following the UW practice of offering as many courses as possible utilizing the broad backgrounds of the early faculty members.
Dr. Wergeland wrote to friends that she had found a favorite place at UW, the library, which was then located in Old Main. Founder of the library, and its first librarian, was Dr. Hebard, who was sort of a jill-of-all-trades on the UW faculty at the time. No doubt Hebard had played a role in selecting Wergeland to fill a UW vacancy.
In 1904, Doctors Hebard and Wergeland decided to build a house together, on a lot at the corner of 10th and Garfield Streets. They planned their own nearly-matching bedrooms on the second floor, each of which has a large dressing room/closet on the east with a tiny round window tucked under the eave and a large balcony facing east. It became a center for entertaining students, who dubbed the home “The Doctors Inn” at 318 S. 10th Street.
UNTHINKABLE TO WED
UW history department chair Deborah Hardy wrote in 1986 of the remarkable women who served on the faculty in the early days. Grace Raymond Hebard arrived in 1891 and quickly assumed several important roles at UW. Next was June Etta Downey who began teaching English at UW in 1898 but switched to philosophy and psychology after earning her doctorate from the University of Chicago in 1907. The third was Agnes Mathilde Wergeland who arrived in 1902.
About these three women, Hardy points out in her UW 100th year anniversary book that “women professors stuck together.” It was clear that “they were expected to abandon their careers should they ever decide to marry, and the necessity of such a sacrifice caused them to seek each other’s society more eagerly than that of male companions.”
These three women remained single throughout their lives. But the first woman on the UW faculty was Elizabeth Arnold, one of the first six faculty members to be hired. She taught German in 1887 when UW opened its doors—she had studied in Germany for two years prior to 1887. But she resigned the next year when she married Evanston banker Charles Stone. Combining marriage and a career was unthinkable at the time.
Dr. Wergeland was well aware that Wyoming women could vote—that was a most welcome side benefit of the job at UW. In Norway, she belonged to a progressive women’s rights organization, and she felt that prevented her from obtaining a teaching job there.
She was distantly related to Norwegian writer Camilla Collett, whom she visited as a youngster with her mother, and lived with briefly in 1879. Collett was a leading writer espousing the new women’s rights movement in Norway. Later, Dr. Wergeland said of the older woman that the “relationship to me was distant, yet she was much nearer to my heart than any of my other relatives.”
There is not much evidence that she let her feministic leanings enter into her teaching, however. There was no need to crusade for women’s rights as the women of Wyoming already had them. Her many accomplishments led to her becoming a role model, along with Dr. Hebard, for many of the young women studying at UW.
Dr. Wergeland was an introvert, no doubt; several acquaintances describe her as quiet and shy. Her self-motivation is evident in her pursuit of higher education and her command of five languages. She had an idealism that was suited to life in America, and particularly in Wyoming, where women were treated with equality.
Prior to joining the UW faculty, Wergeland must have been remarkably self-contained, shut off from female company as she had been in her childhood and throughout most of her early life as often the only woman in her classes. She developed a strong resolve that allowed her to compete with men successfully in academic circles.
In Wyoming, it seems clear that she was more relaxed, and reveled in the company of the circle of women who had become fast friends. She was able to complete a volume of poems in her native language, and saw it published in Norway to some notice. Fekjær points out that Dr. Wergeland’s academic success was due in some part to the freedom that life in Wyoming provided her.
There was another side to her as artist, nature lover and pianist. She played the piano at the Doctors Inn often for her own enjoyment and that of Dr. Hebard and visitors. Biographer Løken mentions that Dr. Wergeland attended a Norwegian school of drawing around 1879. Wherever she lived, she amused herself with pen and ink sketches of her surroundings.
In 1910, the census shows that Wergeland and Hebard also had a lodger, Catherine Hutton, widow of early rancher Charles Hutton, who died nearly penniless in 1899. Catherine was about the same age as Wergeland and Hebard and there is evidence in the Laramie papers that she began lodging at the Doctors Inn in 1906, though by 1911 she had her own home.
Agnes Mathilde Wergeland died March 6, 1914; she had been ill with what was probably heart disease. She was still head of the UW history department. Her fame as a prominent Norwegian/American came afterward; three of her scholarly works were published posthumously in 1916: “Leaders in Norway,” “Slavery in Germanic society during the middle ages” and “History of the working classes in France.”
Her two volumes of poetry in Norwegian also began attracting attention.
An endowment in her name was established at the local university in Christiania where she had independently studied from 1878 to 1883. The scholarship was to provide funds for Norwegian women to study history and economics in the US. Also, Dr. Hebard began a history scholarship at UW in her honor.
UW’s American Heritage Center contains a wealth of information in the Agnes Mathilde Wergeland Collection. Her classroom teaching notebooks are there, including such subjects she taught as civilization from Greece through the 19th century, architectural history, American history, English constitutional history, medieval history and “Germanic slave laws.” They also contain her scholarly articles from 1890 through 1914, and a file of her poems and photographs.
She is memorialized at the Emigration Center in Sletta, Norway as one of two women writers who helped “bring the news of life in America to Norwegians.” Just as she was influenced by US visitors from Norway who wrote to her about the advantages of life in America for women, her life and accomplishments in America became an important beacon to influence other potential immigrants to America, especially women.
Editor’s Note: Judy Knight is Collection Manager at the Laramie Plains Museum, eagerly awaiting the reopening of the museum which may occur in May. Articles from this series are archived on the website wyoachs.com of the Albany County Historical Society. Many of the LPM photographs and documents about Dr. Wergeland came from one of Dr. Hebard’s library assistants, Alice Stirling Johnson, who later became the elected Albany County Treasurer.