Mina Rees: Women Mathematicians Before 1950

A meeting in Providence, R.I., on 9 August 1978 was planned, moderated, and edited by Pat Kenschaft, Montclair State College.

The Association for Women in Mathematics sponsored a panel on "Women Mathematicians before 1950" at the summer meeting in Providence, R.I., on 9 August 1978. The speakers were Dorothy Bernstein of Goucher College, M Gweneth Humphreys of Randolph Macon Women's College, Anne F O'Neill of Wheaton College, and Mina Rees of City University of New York. We present below a version of the talk given by Mina Rees.

Mina Rees.

I have been asked to include a large dose of autobiography. This I do with some difficulty, resorting to quotations to assist in making certain value judgments. My A.B. was from Hunter in 1923, my Ph.D. from Chicago in 1931.

After Chicago, in the midst of the depression, I returned to Hunter to resume the usual duties associated with academic life. The decisive event in my life came in 1943, when I accepted a wartime job that introduced a whole new orientation into my career. This was an invitation to join the staff of the Applied Mathematics Panel of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (ORSRD) when the organisation to handle scientific war work was reorganised in 1943. I became Technical Aide and Assistant to Warren Weaver, the Chief of the Applied Mathematics Panel.

Why do I call this change decisive? First, because it greatly broadened my awareness of unfamiliar fields of mathematics and my contacts with mathematicians; and, second, because it greatly increased my understanding of the character and activities of many of our major educational institutions and of the structure and operations of the government including the military establishment. In short, it gave me the kind of experience that made it appropriate for me to be invited to become head of the mathematics research program of the Office of Naval Research when that Office was established after the war.

Because of the importance of the Applied Mathematics Panel in this tale, I think I should say a few words about what it was and what it did. The National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) had been set up even before the United States entered WWII to provide scientific assistance to the military. There was no mathematics division. Warren Weaver, who was at that time Director of the Natural Sciences Division of the Rockefeller Foundation and had been professor and chairman of the mathematics department at the University of Wisconsin, was head of a section of the Fire Control Division to which had been assigned the specific task of developing an Anti-Aircraft Director that would serve as an essential component in the system that was needed to protect Britain from German bombing. By the end of 1942 that task had been brought to a spectacularly successful conclusion in the production of an AA Director that shot down every single buzz bomb that came over the part of the east coast of Britain to which the AA Director had been assigned for tests. It was at this time that NDRC was reorganised to enable it to perform its tasks more completely, reflecting what it had learned from its early experience. And it was then that Vannevar Bush, who headed the new OSRD of which NDRC became a part, decided to establish an Applied Mathematics Panel (AMP) to help with the increasingly complex mathematical problems that were coming to the surface as well as with those other problems that were relatively simple mathematically but needed mathematicians to formulate them adequately.

Dr Weaver set up an official government body, the Applied Mathematics Panel, which, like comparable bodies handling other aspects of scientific war work, wrote contracts between the government and various universities to provide, in our case, mathematical services when they were requested to do so by AMP. There were, of course, mathematicians engaged in many parts of the war efforts in the War Policy Committee, in the armed services (in uniform - Herman Goldstine; as civilians in government establishments - E J McShane at Aberdeen; in Operations Research Units attached to the Air Force - G B Price), on war tasks in industry (Westinghouse, RCA, BTL), in training programs at colleges and universities, and in other divisions of OSRD including the Radiation Laboratory and the Manhattan Project. AMP was to provide additional mathematical assistance to the military and to other divisions of OSRD when they were asked for it provided they considered that they had a reasonable chance of doing something useful. The Panel set up contracts with Princeton, Columbia, New York University, Berkeley, the Franklin Institute, Brown, the Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard, the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Northwestern, as well as with the Mathematical Tables Project (originally established by the WPA). Many of the country's ablest mathematicians were employed under these contracts and many moved from their home universities in order to participate. Among others there were Mac Lane, Albert, Courant, Friedrichs, Prager, Leighton, Garrett Birkhoff, Wilks, Mosteller, Abraham Wald, Allen Wallis, Milton Friedman (the last two operating as statisticians). The members of the Panel itself, all government appointees, included, among others, Thornton Fry, Marston Morse, G C Evans, H P Robertson, A H Taub, Oswald Veblen, Richard Courant. This was the policy committee that decided whether it made sense for the panel to undertake a project. And it was Courant who was responsible for my being invited to join the staff of AMP as a civil servant. It was not because I was an applied mathematician - my degree was in Abstract Algebra; it was not because I was a woman - there was no equal opportunity then. It was the good old buddy system. Let me explain.

I was at Chicago from 1929-31. In the summer of 1930 I attended my first summer meeting of the mathematicians here at Brown. What I remember most clearly about that meeting was that I had breakfast with Marston Morse and G D Birkhoff. I found the experience overwhelming, and I was enchanted with mathematicians and, at least partially because of that, with mathematics. When I returned to New York I continued my attendance at meetings, both winter and summer. And so it came about that, when Courant was visiting lecturer of the Society, I met him at a meeting, and continued my acquaintance with him when he came to NYU. Though I was not a research mathematician and though I soon learned that I couldn't understand much at the meetings, I did find them useful in giving me some idea of the directions that mathematical research was taking. I might add that I understand even less now.

When AMP was being organised Courant recognised that Dr Weaver would need administrative help as well as mathematical help, and suggested my name. Mathematical help was being provided by Sam Wilks, Ivan Sokolnikoff, Hal Germond, and, later, by Don Spencer. The job involved contact with the work going on under all contracts and attendance at all Panel meetings. There were trips to military installations, including headquarters in Washington, in the company of appropriate contract personnel, to clarify the problems we had been asked to help with, to determine the likelihood that we could do something useful, and to formulate recommendations to the Panel which met weekly. There were reports on projects completed to be published and circulated to people with a legitimate interest in the problem both in this country and in England and Canada. There were monthly and, later, bimonthly reports to be prepared and distributed, reporting on progress, or lack of it, on projects that had been undertaken by the Panel but not yet completed. There were endless administrative details to be handled as the Panel carried on a broadly based effort to bring mathematics to the service of the war effort. When the time came to close up shop, the Panel had some spectacular successes. Its work was much appreciated.

My work with the Panel lasted until the end of the war in 1946. It gave me familiarity with the work of many of America's most able mathematicians; and it gave me considerable understanding of the changes that were occurring in mathematics as a result of experiences in World War II: the emergence of mathematical statistics in its great variety; the development of the computer and the need for extensive work in mathematics to insure a sound exploitation of the potential of the computer; the clear opportunity to extend the use of operations research to important new areas; the potential, through the use of computers, for more applicable results in analysis.

When the Office of Naval Research was established after the war, it was natural that my name should be suggested, along with others, to head the mathematics component of the new Office. It was at this time that my being a woman raised some serious doubts. But, in due course, I was invited to become head of the mathematics research program of ONR. I did raise a question about the possibility that my sex might prove a deterrent to my success. But we decided to take a chance.

My sex was only one of the problems that I had. I very much doubted that the mathematicians would want to receive support for their research from a military organisation after the war was over. Initially, this judgment was right. But, as time passed, mathematicians found the program a very desirable one. And I found the ONR experience an exciting one. One activity that we supported was the newly established National Applied Mathematics Laboratory at the National Bureau of Standards which, as part of its program, brought distinguished foreign mathematicians to this country, sometimes as visitors, sometimes for longer stays. Olga Taussky Todd and Jack Todd were among those who came in those early post-war years. Now, of course, Olga Taussky is one of the American women making important contributions to mathematical research.

I spent 7 years in Washington until, in 1953, I left to return to Hunter as Dean. The experience in Washington had given me administrative and academic sophistication that would have been hard to get elsewhere. Partly to emphasise the character of the early program of ONR for those of you who may not have known it, I quote now from resolutions adopted by the Council of the American Mathematical Society after I had returned to Hunter:
Needless to say as the purest of all sciences, mathematical research might well have lagged behind [in the large-scale fostering by the U.S. government of fundamental research]. That nothing of the sort happened is beyond any doubt traceable to one person - Mina Rees. Under her guidance, basic research in general, and especially in mathematics, received the most intelligent and whole-hearted support. No greater wisdom and foresight could have been displayed and the whole post-war development of mathematical research in the United States owes an immeasurable debt to the pioneer work of the Office of Naval Research and to the alert, vigorous and farsighted Policy conducted by Miss Rees. The influence of these policies has been such that it vitally affected later developments; the activities of Air Force and itself.
I should also mention that the Institute of Mathematical Statistics adopted similar resolutions, and I include a brief excerpt:
Under Dr Rees' leadership the Division of Mathematical Sciences of the Office of Naval Research gave whole-hearted support to basic research, in particular to basic research in mathematical statistics and probability. The whole action was conducted with remarkable foresight and wisdom ... Mathematical Statistics owes Mina Rees a public 'well done'.
Among the many honours that I have received, I cherish most the three I received from mathematical groups: the two resolutions I have just cited, and the first Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics conferred in January 1962 by the Mathematical Association.

For my future career, first at Hunter and later as a central administrator of the newly-established City University of New York, the importance of the ONR experience was in the rather intimate knowledge it gave me of the modus operandi and of the ambience of virtually all of the country's leading research universities and of many of the liberal arts colleges. It also resulted in the establishment of warm friendships with many mathematicians and with many university administrators.

My course was set. I was committed to administration, not research, but administration with a heavy orientation toward science. Invitations to serve on national committees continued to come. I was a member (and served as chairman) of the Advisory Committee on Mathematics of the National Bureau of Standards; of the Advisory Committee for Mathematics of NSF; of the General Sciences Advisory Board of DOD. I was a trustee of AMS from 1955-59, and a member of the NRC Mathematics Division from 1953-56, and of its executive committee for 2 years. For many years I served on the Board of Directors of AAAS, and was elected to its presidency for 1970, serving as chairman of its board the following year, the first woman to hold these posts. In 1958, at the suggestion of NSF, I called the meeting at MIT out of which grew the School Mathematics Study Group. In 1964, by presidential appointment, I became a member of the National Sciences Board.

My stay at Hunter lasted 8 years. In 1961 I was invited to develop the Ph.D. programs of the newly-established City University of New York. The University was based on the existing city colleges, including CUNY, Hunter, Brooklyn, Queens and Lehman, and resembled a British University with its many largely autonomous colleges more than a typical American university with one or two liberal arts colleges. I ended my career in 1972 as President of the Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York.

The building of a graduate school that called upon and stimulated the growth of the scholarly and physical resources of so many established liberal arts colleges and that achieved acknowledged first-class graduate work in a brief period of time required the combining of traditional elements of academic structure with often difficult innovations. During this period, when my prime concern was with graduate education, I was active in the work of the Council of Graduate Schools in the United States, and was elected Chairman of that Council in 1970.

I believe it if fair to say that, in the Navy and while I was active in graduate education, I had some impact on the growing acceptance of women both in graduate education and in administrative and policy-making posts. In 1972, in a paper presented at a meeting of the American Council on Education, I reported that, at the City University, in contrast to the situation reported somewhat earlier at several other universities, there was strong evidence that women's performance as graduate students was about the same as that of men with respect to all three parameters that had been used to measure this performance in other studies reported in the literature: completion of the first or qualifying examination, completion of all requirements for the degree except the dissertation, and completion of the degree. Moreover, at our graduate school, women's admission to graduate study, access to fellowships, and acceptance on the faculty and in the administration seemed to be substantially without discrimination. On another front, I can report that, over the years, two other women have been appointed to head the Mathematics Branch in the Office of Naval Research and that one of these was also made Director of the Mathematical Sciences Division.

I have enjoyed and cherished my associations with mathematicians, but I have made no significant contributions to the corpus of mathematical work. When I was young my only ambition was to be a research mathematician. In retrospect, I don't believe that that was ever possible for me. But it is for some women. And it is clearly essential that we provide the opportunities for women as well as for men to find the satisfactions and the rewards of research careers if their talents and commitments make such careers possible. And other women are now showing the way.

Last Updated December 2021