Karen Parshall

Commonwealth Professor of History and Mathematics, Emerita

Nau (434)924-6397
Nau 456 and Kerchof 213
Office Hours: By appointment

Field & Specialties

History of Science
History of Mathematics


B.A. (with highest distinction) in Mathematics and French, University of Virginia, May 1977.

M.S. in Mathematics, University of Virginia, August 1978.

Ph.D. in History, University of Chicago, August 1982.


I was somewhat of a rarity on the faculty at the University of Virginia–a native Virginian. I did my undergraduate studies in French and mathematics as well as my M.S. in mathematics UVa before pursuing my graduate work at the University of Chicago. I earned my Ph.D. in history from Chicago, where I was privileged to work under the supervision of I. N. Herstein in mathematics and Allen G. Debus in the history of science. My doctoral work explored the history of the theory of algebras and especially the role played by Joseph H. M. Wedderburn in that development.

From 1988 to 2023, I was on the faculty at UVa where I had a joint appointment in the Departments of History and Mathematics, teaching the history of science in the History Department and mathematics and the history of mathematics in the Mathematics Department. I have been involved with Historia Mathematica, the international journal for the history of mathematics, first as Book Review Editor (1990–1994), then as Managing Editor (1994–1996), then as Editor (1996–1999), and now as a member of the editorial board (2000–present). I served as a member of the Council of the American Mathematical Society (1998–2001) and as a member of the Council of the History of Science Society (2001–2004). In 2002, I was elected the Chair of the International Commission for History of Mathematics (ICHM) for a term for the four calendar years from 2002 through 2005 and reelected for another four-year term from 2006 through 2009.  I am currently the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Mathematical Intelligencer, and I will begin a tour of duty as an Associate Editor of the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society in January 2024.



The Emergence of the American Mathematical Research Community (1876–1900): J. J. Sylvester, Felix Klein, and E. H. Moore (with David E. Rowe), AMS/LMS Series in the History of Mathematics, vol. 8 (Providence: American Mathematical Society and London: London Mathematical Society, 1994; paperback edition, 1997). 

James Joseph Sylvester: Life and Work in Letters (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998; paperback edition, 2013). 

James Joseph Sylvester: Jewish Mathematician in a Victorian World (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). 

Taming the Unknown: A History of Algebra from Antiquity to the Early Twentieth Century (with Victor J.Katz) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014). 

The New Era in American Mathematics, 1920-1950 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2022).


Experiencing Nature: Proceedings of a Conference in Honor of Allen G. Debus (ed. with Paul Theerman), (Boston/Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997). 

Mathematics Unbound: The Evolution of an International Mathematical Research Community, 1800–1945 (ed. with Adrian C. Rice), HMATH, vol. 23 (Providence: American Mathematical Society, and London: London Mathematical Society, 2002). 

Episodes in the History of Modern Algebra (1800–1950) (ed. with Jeremy J. Gray), HMATH, vol. 32 (Providence: American Mathematical Society, and London: London Mathematical Society, 2007). 

Bridging Traditions: Alchemy, Chymistry, and Paracelsian Traditions in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of Allen G. Debus (ed. with Michael Walton and Bruce Moran), Early Modern Studies Series (Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2015). 

Current Research

My research focuses primarily on the history of 19th- and 20th-century algebra and on the history of science and mathematics in the United States. In addition to exploring technical developments of algebra—the theory of algebras, group theory, algebraic invariant theory—I have also worked on more thematic issues such as the development of national mathematical research communities (specifically in the United States and Great Britain) and the internationalization of mathematics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Although the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century mathematics is my primary research interest, I could not be my history of science adviser's "daughter" without also having a serious research interest in the so-called the Scientific Revolution.

I am now at work on a new, long-range project on the various entanglements of the American mathematical research community during the McCarthy Era of the 1950s.  

Awards & Honors

John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, 1996-1997

National Science Foundation's Program for Visiting Professorships for Women, 1996-1997.

Corresponding Member of the Académie internationale d'histoire des sciences, 2002.

Inaugural Fellow of the American Mathematical Society, 2012.

Effective Member of the Académie internationale d'histoire des sciences, 2016.

Commonwealth Professor of History and Mathematics, 2016-2023 (Emerita, 2023-present).

Albert Leon Whiteman Memorial Prize of the American Mathematical Society, 2018.

Fellow, Section A (Mathematics), American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2020.