Ragsdale was born on a farm in Jamestown, North Carolina. She attended a private school in Jamestown.
As a junior, Ragsdale entered Salem Academy, where she studied piano as well as academic studies. She graduated in 1887 as valedictorian. Ragsdale soon attended Guilford College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and actively shaped the college while there. She was able to establish a Y.M.C.A. on campus, expand collegiate athletics, and she contributed to form the Guilford's Alumni Association.
She was given a scholarship from Bryn Mawr College for being the woman with the highest scholastic average after her graduation from Guilford College with a B.S. degree in 1892. She studied physics at Bryn Mawr College, obtaining an A.B. degree, and continued on as a graduate student. After a year of study, she earned a fellowship to study in Europe.
Together with two of her colleagues, she chose to spend her year abroad at the University of Göttingen, Germany, in which she worked with Felix Klein and David Hilbert. After her return to the United States, she taught in Baltimore until a second scholarship permitted her to return to her alma mater college to complete her Ph.D. degree. Her first notable dissertation, "On the Arrangement of the Real Branches of Plane Algebraic Curves," was published in 1906 by the American Journal of Mathematics. Based on this dissertation, the Ragsdale conjecture was formed.
After completing her degree, Ragsdale taught for several years and was eventually coaxed to North Carolina in 1911 to accept a mathematics position at Woman's College in Greensboro (now known as the University of North Carolina at Greensboro). She remained there for almost two decades and even was the department's head from 1926-1928.
In 1928, she retired from teaching in order to care for her mother's health. After the death of her mother, she built a house on the edge of the Guilford College campus, where she spent her last years gardening, working with furniture, and researching her family's genealogy.
Following Ragsdale's death, she donated her house to Guilford College. Over the years, it housed the faculty, alumni, and visitors. In 1965, it was decided that the house would be the home of the college's president until today.
- Virginia Ragsdale descended from Godfrey Ragsdale, a settler of the new Jamestown colony. Jamestown was once raided by a native-American tribe in 1644 led by the uncle of Pocahontas. During a raid in 1644, Godfrey and his wife were killed, but managed to mask their infant son, Godfrey, Jr., who was then rescued and raised by a neighbour. Ragsdale was then descended from the infant.
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