SIAM News Blog

Remembering Cathleen Morawetz: A Champion of Mathematics at a Tumultuous Time

By John Ewing and Margaret Wright

This article is a tribute to renowned mathematician Cathleen Morawetz, who passed away last summer on August 8. We are looking back at her tireless advocacy for mathematics during a particularly trying period. Cathleen spent much of her respected career at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences, and is remembered for her contributions to the study of partial differential equations governing fluid flow. Notably, she was also only the second woman to be elected president of the American Mathematical Society (AMS).

Society presidents are busy people.  They serve two-year terms, but also function as president-elects the year before and past-presidents the year after. They travel to meetings around the country, learn how new federal policy affects the mathematical sciences, communicate with other societies around the world, and respond to changes in the academy. It’s a big job.

Cathleen was elected president of the AMS in 1993. Her presidency (1995-1996) was especially challenging given the turbulent time period, which was politically fraught and replete with controversial issues for the mathematical sciences.

The U.S. government shut down twice in quick succession because of standoffs between President Clinton and Congress. The shutdowns led to general reductions in federal spending — particularly in science funding, which could no longer be justified by the Cold War. Rather, research in basic science was under pressure to demonstrate its contributions to “economic competitiveness.”

Members of the mathematical sciences community feared that these trends would lead to minimal or no support for “core mathematics” and an overall decline in the long-term health of the mathematical sciences. It was a perilous time — a time that might have led to disastrous infighting between pure and applied mathematics. By good fortune, it did not.

From left to right: Coauthor Margaret Wright, Donald J. Lewis, and Cathleen Morawetz at the “Celebration for Donald J. Lewis” in 1999. Image courtesy of Marty LaVor.
During Cathleen’s AMS presidency, coauthor Margaret Wright was president of SIAM. The two worked together to implement agendas for both the AMS and SIAM that emphasized unity among the mathematical sciences, thus strengthening the community and making a case for the importance of mathematics in the larger scientific endeavor. Because the two societies did not have a history of cooperation or even goodwill, they first had to overcome nearly half a century of apprehension.

Margaret was a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories, only a few miles away from Cathleen at Courant. They began to meet for lunch in Greenwich Village (on their own dime!), and talked about issues and hazards, politics and agencies, and goals and strategies. They formulated carefully-worded statements for Congress and agency leaders, always stressing the remarkable track record of useful mathematics and the unexpected benefits of undirected basic research. Cathleen and Margaret conveyed that same message to the director of the National Science Foundation, leaders of other agencies that support mathematics research, congressional staff, and members of Congress whenever they spoke on behalf of their societies and the mathematical sciences. As they campaigned, they became good friends. That interaction and camaraderie brought together not only the two leaders, but their societies as well. Consequently, mathematical factions—which might have grown farther apart—instead grew closer and worked together, benefiting every element of the mathematical sciences.

Cathleen faced many other problems throughout her presidency. Employment prospects for young mathematicians were poor. She brought attention to the dilemma and set people to work on enhancing career opportunities for trained mathematicians. The public (and Congress) increasingly believed that universities were not taking teaching seriously, and Cathleen engaged the AMS to counter that perception. The internet was in its infancy, and few people were concerned with making older literature available online. As a board member of JSTOR, Cathleen was determined to put the mathematical sciences at the forefront of this new effort.

One problem in particular illustrated the tenor of the times. In November of 1995, the University of Rochester announced that it was ending its graduate program in mathematics. The plan was to eventually cut the size of the faculty in half and move some undergraduate professors to other departments. Rochester higher-ups did not see mathematics as essential to a research program. Cathleen jumped in, creating a task force that ultimately convinced the school to reverse the decision. Fittingly, one of the outcomes was a clear statement of support from all parts of the mathematical sciences community.

Soon after her term as president, Cathleen was awarded the National Medal of Science; she was the first woman mathematician to receive this honor. The award primarily recognized her many research contributions, which extended over a remarkable five decades. But the honor also confirmed her position as an equally remarkable leader in the mathematical sciences. The legacy of that leadership remains.

John Ewing served as executive director of the American Mathematical Society from 1995-2009, and is currently president of Math for America. Margaret Wright is a Silver Professor of Computer Science at New York University’s Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. Prior to that, she was a researcher at Stanford University and a Distinguished Member of Technical Staff at Bell Laboratories.

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