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December 2001

An Integrated City University Responds to the WTC Crisis

Bold, High-Tech TV Magazine Invites "Study with the Best"
NYC Past in Full Array At Inaugural History Festival
CUNY Community Colleges: Vital to City Economy
Arthur Miller Drops Back In for Finley Award at CCNY Dinner
Archaeologists Research Vikings
Faculty Experts Join Collaboration on World Trade Center Future
New Research Foundation Head
Asthma Initiative at BCC Registers Major Success
Oysters Reintroduced to Bay
York Grad Makes Naval History
Managing the 9/11 Crisis at BMCC
Hunter Cartographers Prepare Vital Ground Zero Maps For Rescue
CCNYĺs Rosenberg/Humphrey Interns Continue Public Service Tradition
City Tech Prof Sheds Light on Titanic
New Device for Medical Diagnonis
Mina Rees, Pioneering Military Scientist
Annual Perspectives Nears 25th Anniversary
University to HIV Children: ôToys (and Lots Else) Are Usö
 
 
Mina Rees: Pioneering Military Scientist, Graduate Center's Founding President

Improbable Warriors author Kathleen Broome Williams and, below, pictured on the book jacket is New York University meteorologist (and Navy commander) Florence van Straten.
Kathleen Broome Williams, author of Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the U.S. Navy in World War II, just published by the Naval Institute Press, acknowledges that not many women are interested in military history. However, a life-long passion for the subject urged her on to a CUNY Ph.D. in military history, and she now teaches modern history at Bronx Community College. "I do manage to get quite a bit of military history into the course," she says, "since we cover the Civil War, World War I, and World War II."

A previous book by Dr. Williams—Secret Weapon, published in 1996 by the Naval Institute Press—was a history of the U.S. development of high-frequency direction- finding for use in the Battle of the Atlantic. As she researched the book, she became aware of several women who were doing highly classified and important scientific work for the Allied cause. With a 1996 grant from CUNY˘s Women˘s Research and Development Fund, she began research in the files of Lehman College, which was the WWII training center for Navy WAVES.

"The rapid expansion of wartime science created many opportunities for women, especially in the science- and technology-driven Navy, whose increasing reliance on emerging technologies owed its success, in part, to their previously underutilized work," Williams writes in her introduction.

In the end, she decided to focus her study on four particularly prominent scientists. Each held a Ph.D. and was a college professor before her Navy service. "Between 1942 and 1945, each held a position from which she influenced the Navy's ability to wage a modern war dependent on science," she writes. Mary Sears was a Harvard and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution planktonologist, Grace Hopper a Yale-trained mathematician teaching at Vassar, and Florence van Straten a New York University physical chemist.

The fourth of the improbably outstanding warriors was Mina Rees, a 1923 alumna of Hunter College, a professor of mathematics there, and, after World War II, the College˘s Dean of Students. She became the first dean of graduate studies at CUNY and was the founding president of the City University Graduate School in 1961. At the time, she was the only woman dean of a graduate school in a coeducational institution in the nation.
She was the first woman to be elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and she had a profound influence on mathematics education and the development of computer technology.
Rees died in 1997 at the age of 95. The New York Times, summing up her career in its obituary, noted that she "worked on projects like fluid flow to solve antisubmarine problems, hydrofoil designs and early rocketry. . . . She also had an important role in the growth and diversification of mathematical studies. Many of her ideas left their mark on fast computer technology."

Eager to make a contribution to the war effort after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Rees was delighted to be offered the dual job of technical aide to the Applied Mathematics Panel of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and executive assistant to Warren Weaver, who headed the panel. By 1946 she headed the mathematics branch of the Office of Naval Research (ONR), a position she held until 1949, after which she was deputy director of the entire science division of the ONR until 1953, when she returned to Hunter College. "It would prove challenging to design and develop a mathematical program melding civilian and navy science in peacetime," Williams wrote.

For her war work Rees received the King˘s Medal for Service in the Cause of Freedom from the British government and the U.S. President˘s Certificate of Merit. The following are excerpts from Improbable Warriors on CUNY˘s pioneering woman scientist:

"Mina Rees, a Hunter College mathematician, oversaw contracts for Navy scientific projects as chief technical aid to the Applied Mathematics Panel of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). As the invaluable assistant to Warren Weaver, the panel˘s head, Rees was responsible for directing millions of dollars of government money to many scientific projects, including those in which the other three women were engaged. Indeed, the wartime interdependence of navy and civilian science, which permanently affected postwar ideas about the government˘s role in funding scientific research, is particularly well illustrated by the work of NDRC..."

"When she left Washington in 1953, the first generation of machines produced by the computer industry had arrived. Looking back on her ten years of government service, Rees wrote that she left Washington convinced that ░computers would be exploited in the future by the large commercial companies and that the role of the government vis-ç-vis the computer would be quite different from what it had been during the zesty days of my service at the Office of Naval Research."

Dr. Mina Rees is seen in a photo by Bachrach.

"Some may consider it presumptuous to call desk-bound scientists warriors; they did not put their lives on the line. It has only been since 1993, however, that women fly combat aircraft and serve aboard warships; and they are still restricted from service in ground combat units. So how was a patriotic woman to serve her country in the 1940s?

"The answer is no more complex than the motivation: she used her education and her skills to come as close to the action as she could. For every man who risked his life in battle there were other men, and women, too, fighting with all the strength they had to end the war victoriously and to bring everyone safely home. These women were intellectual warriors; moreover, all were volunteers."

"There are several reasons for the poor showing of women scientists at the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Most of the projects were located at prestigious universities where the female presence was very small anyway. In addition, scientists recruited from other academic institutions to join in the wartime research were usually found through an old-boy network that either actively excluded women or simply did not know about them. Mathematician Mina Rees, who made an effort to be widely known in her discipline, was one of the few exceptions."

"The four women were exceptions in many ways. They were exceptional in their prewar careers, exceptional in their wartime service, and exceptional in what they got out of it, and where they went from there. In each case their experiences during the war deeply affected their postwar professional lives in positive ways. They each gave in full measure and they received much in return because they were ready and able to perceive new challenges."