Two Famous Women at George Washington University Professors
Two mathematicians that not only made their mark on mathematics at George Washington University, but also on the rest of the mathematics world were Dagmar Henney, and Florence Mears. Each Mathematician came at different periods in the university’s history, but each one made an indelible mark that has lasted years past their retirement from the school.
During my search for information on both professors I found that locating information on Professor Henney was much easier than finding information on Florence Mears. When searching for information on Professor Mears, I would find her former students names, but there would be no response or communication from any of my repeated attempts to contacting them.
Dagmar Henney, on the other hand, was completely the opposite; she was courteous, friendly and answered all the questions that I put forth. Though I could not meet with her in person because she had family friends visiting her from Europe, she made the time to answer my many repeated emails. I was not only able to learn about her past and what and who shaped her future, but also her mathematical ideas. We also talked almost her personal life and how that affected her teaching style that made her one of GWU’s best math professors in recent history.
Dagmar Henney was born in Germany in pre-World War II times; she was not allowed to go to school since she was Jewish. . “Most Jewish families were completely annihilated at this time, but the Kirschners ( Kirschner was her maiden name) were spared for a while because of the nature of Albert Kirschner’s work” (Biller,5). During the interview the issue of her childhood was brought up and it became apparent that it was a very sensitive issue. She was, in fact, reluctant to give many details about it at all.
The fate for her mother and many of her family members was not so lucky. “ In order to influence her husband to continue his work, Mrs. Kirschner was arrested by the Nazis; she was later executed” (Biller, 5). Henney, during her childhood, along with her eminent nuclear physicist father lived on the run, going from one bombed out German city to the next; she did say though that she spent most her years in both Hamburg and Berlin. At one point during the war there were actually twenty bombshells that were littered across her front lawn. When asked about the favorite part of her childhood, Henney answered pre-war Germany. My next question was in regards to a moment or incident that stood out from her childhood experience. Henney replied that the time period surrounding WW II and circumstances of her birth in a war torn Europe at the time made an indelible mark on her life for years to come.
Instead of school attending, her physicist father home schooled her, for fear that their identity would be found out and then she would be sent away to a concentration camp. Her father Albert Kirschener was one of the ten most famous physicists of Germany during that time in Germany. At one time he was colleagues with Werner Von Braun who was one of the world’s first and foremost rocket engineers and a leading authority on space travel. Henney’s father instilled a love for the sciences, math, and physics that she still has to this day. She enrolled in high school after the war at the age of ten.
It was not until after the end of the war that Henney was able to attend high school. When she finished high school in 1951, she joined her grandparents in Miami. Before entering the University of Miami in 1952, Henney had already gained 63 credits. To gain these credits though she had to take an exam when she arrived in the US. An example of a sample test question is stated below:
I was only 10 and I remember there were questions about a frog climbing up a flagpole. He’d climb up a few centimeters and then slip back. We would take him to climb the pole (Barnes, Post).
This transition was not easy one going from Germany to the U.S. She had to learn a new language and new customs. “Mrs. Henney, a native German, spoke no English when she entered the University of Miami in 1952” (5, Biller). Not with standing this, she got a job at a local movie theater. During her time at the theater working as cashier she earned $.57 per hour. “Mrs. Henney soon mastered the English language by working in a movie theater in Miami and seeing each show three or four times” (Biller,5).
Upon entering the University of Miami, Henney took placement exams that allowed her to take such high level classes in nuclear physics and advanced calculus in her freshman year. It was in this very physics course where she met of her future husband Alan Henney. He remarked that she was the smartest girl in the class. The catch though was that she was actually the only girl in the class. They would marry years later. Alan Henney would move on to become a physicist at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory when Henney and he moved on to the University of Maryland. It was there that he worked on his Master’s degree in mathematics. Henney graduated within three years with a Bachelor of Arts in mathematics and physics and a Master’s Degree in pure mathematics. Henney also received a minor in chemistry.
When asked about things she remembered most about the University of Miami, it seemed always to revolve around academics. This is very different than the usual student in Miami whose response would be something about the beach. Henney considered her time at UM the best years of her life because of excellent and considerate professors. Her favorite professor was Professor Jack Reynolds, a professor of linguistics. Henney remarked that she took all of his courses including Middle, Old English, and Chaucer linguistics. She did say things did get tough when she was taking twelve credits including nine math courses and was a math assistant in the same year.
Henney followed her husband to Maryland after graduating from the University of Miami. Once she moved with her husband to Takoma, Maryland she quickly became an American citizen and then began her work on what would become her doctoral thesis on additive set-values and Banach spears. At the University of Maryland she taught eighteen credits, and took graduate courses at the same time costing her $3600 a year. Henney emphatically noted that she did not mind the $3600 a year price for classes at the university at the time. Henney remarked that while at Maryland she made many close friends who would help her in future. One of these friends was Dr. Koethe who was the Rector of Germany’s Heidelberg University. at the time as well as Dr. Dieudonne who was a renowned French mathematician. While at the University she was made an honorary member of Tri-Delta (scholarship recipient), Beta, Beta, Gamma, as well as Phi Beta Kappa.
Henney was also in charge of all off-campus courses taught by the University of Maryland. This involved working with many foreign students from different European countries. Her duties included hiring and supervising all off campus professors and TA’s. She said that it was a great deal of work going along with her own teaching and class work, but in the end it was rewarding.
During the time Henney was working on her doctorate. “I went through three advisors before I was through,” she commented. Henney later explained that her topic was so specialized that it was difficult for her to find anyone in the Math Department who knew enough about the subject to supervise her dissertation. Henney finally finished up with a professor at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Because of this lack of knowledge, there was still some doubt about the validity of her work. She had to defend her paper in front of thirty math professors who drilled her on her paper.
After all of this Henney was still not given her diploma when the rest of the class graduated during commencement. The reason for this was she had forgotten to pay the price for the diploma. ““I forgot to pay my diploma fee”, she explained. “I’ll be there all right but I have to be last in line and they’ll give me a blank she of paper.”” (Post, Barnes). Henney would receive the diploma a few weeks later, but that did not matter after going through six years of school to get to that point. When Henney was asked in a old yearbook of the University of Maryland’s about what she said about students, she called the students at the University very gratifying. “”The students here are very eager to learn,”” (Biller, 5).
After completing her doctorate Henney moved on to teach at George Washington University. In her time at GWU she taught calculus, finite mathematics, and measure and integration. Henney was an advisor and charter member of the new university chapter of Pi Mu Epsilon, a national honorary mathematics fraternity. Henney was also a founding member of Sigma XI, and a member Phi Beta Kappa, and other scholarship groups. Henney mentioned that thanks to many GWU assistants she was invited to various math societies all over the world. One was even held in Oberwolfach, Germany within a castle and sponsored by the University of Freiburg.
When asked about the Math Department of GWU, while she was teaching there, she responded that, “They were pleasant and helpful. Good attitude of students and faculty in general.” Later when questioned about the school in general Henney seemed very positive. “I miss the university and its students almost daily,” she said. She then went on to say, “I enjoyed my time at GWU so much that it is difficult to think of anything negative.” Henney taught at a time when female leave for babies was not a norm and that was the one problem she had with the university. “I could never figure out why I was granted no annual leave when I had a baby but paid leave when I had a gallbladder operation.”
She still to this very day misses the students and has many friends at the university. “I am still in touch which numbers of previous students,” she commented. After teaching at George Washington University, she was considered for the position of President at University of Iowa and the grad school of the New York University. If she could be president of George Washington University, she would have make sure the excellent courses that are taught at the university should be accessible to all, meaning that the classes should be on the Internet. Henney also agrees with the current school administration and hopes that the university expands as much as possible.
Henney, while teaching at GWU, also had many accomplishments outside of teaching she published research papers, books, and won many awards. Henney published eight research papers in journals in Europe, Asia and the United States. She published many books as well. One of these research papers was called Properties of Set Valued Additive Functions. “The object of this paper is to examine certain of set-valued additive functions which are defined on the positive cone in Euclidean space Em” (Mathematical Monthly, 384). Henney credits the German, Scandinavian, and Portuguese with giving her a start for certain theoretical problems, which were later continued on in U.S. journals.
Henney is also famous when it comes to books, having published a best seller in Unsolved Questions in Mathematics. Another one of her famous books that was partly republished in the GWU Magazine in the spring of 1966 was Bourbaki. Bourbaki is based around a dead French general who gives a lecture at Ecole Superieure in Nancy, France. It actually was not the General at all but an actor instead. The major Bourbaki publication, The Elements of Mathematics, appeared at the same time. The first part of this book includes topology, topological vector spaces, integration, set theory, functions of a real variable, and modern algebra. The point of the book was the regret that many mathematicians were having because of the shadow of falsity that was cast on their work.
Henney was not only famous for her writing, but also for her awards. Henney was considered a finalist on becoming a Congressional Scientist Fellow in Washington Program. The John Hopkins University at the Conference of Conjugate Duality also honored Henney. Dagmar Henney was elected as one of the finalist for the Congressional Scientist Program to act as a liaison on Capitol Hill between Congress and the scientific community. If she had received this position she would have participated in an international conference in the summer of 1973 in Vienna, Austria.
Another Mathematician famous in her own right was Florence Mears. Mears was particularly interested in the infinite series or endless series of numbers. Mears once said that despite the poets love for the word “infinite” there is no poetry in “infinite series”. “Actually awful things can happen when you take two series and multiply” (faculty notes). During Professor Mears tenure at George Washington University two things always remained clear: that “infinite series” is a highly technical field of mathematics and that Mears was a leading authority in the subject. Mears specialty was finding out facts about definitions or values that have been assigned to various infinite series of numbers. Many times Professor Mears would point out that her work was not “applied mathematics” and that she was actually discovering the “truth” as she called it. Many other mathematicians conjecture that Mears had published more articles in important mathematical journals than any other woman in the United States and perhaps in the world had.
Professor Mears as a person was much less serious than most math professors. Mears was very popular with students and faculty and was considered by her own university president as “one of the greatest teachers of mathematics in the country.” One student remarked that you could often find Mears chuckling over an interview with a young student. Professor Mears chief extra-curricular interest was Dandie Dinmont terrier named Robin. Many of her professor friends scolded her for spoiling the dog way to the extent of having a pipecleaner replica of Robin placed on her University office desk. Mears, like Henney, was also a member of Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma XI.
The two professor that I have talked about in this paper, and especially Mrs. Dagmar Henney, were different and unique in their own right. They each brought something different to the job of professor at George Washington University; they taught, investigated math theorems, and even were offered jobs at other universities to become presidents. But one thing can be said for both of them; students that they came into contact got something special out of it. One can be sure of that.
American Association for the Advancement of Science Newsletter: May 24,1973.
Diamondback of the University of Maryland: October 25,1956.
George Washington University Math Department, Faculty Notes on Dagmar Henney
George Washington University Math Department, Faculty Notes on Florence Mears
George Washington University Magazine Spring 1966.
John Hopkins University Press release August 2, 1973.
“UM math whiz has formula” The Miami Herald. (February 5,1956), pg.3-B.
New York Academy of Sciences Press Release: October 25, 1973.
Barnes, Bart. Washington Post 1966.
Personal interviews via email, phone, and fax (May 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13)