Fall 2006

It all adds up: Martha Anne McKnight creates the Ancel Clyde Mewborn Professorship in Mathematics

Ah…the stress-reducing properties of calculus. Yes, for a select few, rational numbers in fixed rows and columns can be very soothing—especially when you’re working 18-hour days on tours of duty in England, Bosnia and the Persian Gulf. Or when put in harm’s way. With a pencil and a piece of paper, military psychiatrist Martha Anne McKnight transported herself from the harsh realities of global conflict back to a simpler, more peaceful time, to a Carolina mathematics professor whose support encouraged her excellence; whose advice furthered her achievement; and whose courses taught her that within chaos, reliable order can be found.

Ancel Mewborn (Photo by Steve Exum)

“It was more than home I recalled during these times,” McKnight, a 1977 Carolina graduate, said of her military service. “One of the things that helped me greatly during these hours … was my far less-than-perfect ability to recall matrix theory and calculus as Dr. Mewborn had so impressively taught.”

In honor of Professor Emeritus Ancel Mewborn and his significant contributions to her life, McKnight has established the Ancel Clyde Mewborn Professorship in Mathematics in the College of Arts and Sciences with a $333,000 bequest. When added to a $167,000 match from the state’s Distinguished Professors Endowment Trust Fund, this $500,000 professorship will ensure that generations of Carolina students—including soldiers on the GI bill—will continue to benefit from Mewborn’s legacy as a brilliant teacher and warm, caring adviser. “My memories of his well-taught classes and his unmatched devotion to his students occurred over many continents,” McKnight said. “They kept my morale higher and my ability to practice medicine intact during quite desperate times.”

McKnight frequently rewrote her will: Soldiers sent overseas are required to do so at each departure. But when her 52-year-old brother, the Honorable Brent McKnight—a Morehead and Rhodes scholar, graduate of Carolina’s School of Law and federal judge—died prematurely after a five-month battle with cancer, she reconsidered the allocation of her assets.


Martha Anne McKnight (Photo by Steve Exum)

“After all you say, you want to do what you mean,” McKnight, now a civilian, said. “[The professorship] is quite simply a small way of expressing my gratitude to Professor Emeritus Mewborn and to the Department of Mathematics for his excellent teaching, his generosity and kindness and—most importantly—for the manner in which he has conducted his own life as an example worthy of repetition.”

McKnight met Mewborn while asking his advice on an introductory calculus course. It was the start of a relationship that sustained McKnight throughout her double major in mathematics and chemistry. Mewborn’s open door welcomed her regardless of office hours, he supported her pursuit of mathematics despite commonly held biases against women in the field, and he set a standard of ethics McKnight hopes to endow.

Among all the students taught in his 30 years, Mewborn remembered McKnight and the congenial professor-student friendship they developed. “She was very bright, very outgoing,” he said. “I taught her in at least three classes and she came to my office a number of times for advice, both formally and informally. She was highly motivated, and I knew she was headed to medical school.”

Mewborn valued his contact with students like McKnight above all else. A popular teacher, he received a Tanner Award for excellence in teaching and a number of departmental teaching awards from graduate students. It was his effort to treat each student as an individual—and not just a member of a class—that endeared him to McKnight and others.

“Teachers don’t teach as much as they think they do,” he said. “Teachers guide students as they learn, and students learn through their efforts and an interest in what they’re doing. The teacher has to arouse an interest in learning, show that he or she is interested in the student and make it clear that learning this subject is worthwhile.” 

McKnight surprised Mewborn with the professorship at a dinner in his honor. With characteristic humility, he sidesteps the limelight. “It was such a nice thing—a good thing—for her to do for the department,” he said. Patrick Eberlein, chair of the Department of Mathematics, is more ebullient. “It was one of the finest moments in the life of the mathematics department that I have witnessed in my 33 years at Carolina,” he said. “The Mewborn professorship reminds us of the importance of undergraduate teaching. An outstanding teacher can remain fresh in the memory of a student for a lifetime, and it clearly did so for Dr. McKnight.”

In her remarks at the dinner, McKnight quoted Carl Jung: “One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings.” Through her generosity, students will continue to be touched by the career of Ancel Mewborn.

Chrys Bullard