Like so many “pioneers in tech,” Mina Rees did not let much dissuade her from her ultimate goals. Born Aug. 2, 1902, in Cleveland, Ohio, Rees grew up in New York City. After graduating summa cum laude from Hunter College in 1923, she began working on a master’s degree at Columbia University, where she heard through the grapevine that “the Columbia mathematics department was really not interested in having women candidates for PhDs.” So she took her mathematical prowess elsewhere.
While on sabbatical from her teaching position at Hunter, Rees began studying with Leonard Dickson in 1929 at the University of Chicago, ultimately earning her PhD in 1931 with a thesis on “Division algebras associated with an equation whose group has four generators.” (Take that, Columbia!) She returned to her teaching position at Hunter, but World War II took her career in another direction. She left Hunter to contribute to the war effort through the Applied Mathematics Panel in the Office of Scientific Research and Development. The Navy took note and, following the war, asked Rees to lead the mathematics branch of the Office of Naval Research. A 1953 resolution from the council of the American Mathematical Society describes her work:
“Under her guidance, basic research in general, and especially in mathematics, received the most intelligent and wholehearted support. No greater wisdom and foresight could have been displayed and the whole postwar 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.”
In 1953, Rees returned to Hunter College, and she completed her career in academia at the City University of New York. Along the way, she served as the first female president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, received the first Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics from the Mathematical Association of America, and was recognized by both the U.S. and the United Kingdom for her work during World War II.
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