Rees: Pioneering Military Scientist, Graduate Center's Founding
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."
Warriors author Kathleen Broome Williams and, below,
pictured on the book jacket is New
York University meteorologist (and Navy commander) Florence
A previous book by Dr. WilliamsSecret Weapon, published
in 1996 by the Naval Institute Presswas 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
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
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
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."
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
"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."