Dagmar Renate Henney: The Woman, Pioneer, and Professor
May 14, 2001
Perhaps it was luck that allowed Dagmar Henney to become a world-renowned mathematician, professor, and scholar of mathematics. Most likely though, it was Henney’s great love for the mathematics field, hard work, and the belief in her self that allowed her to become a leading mathematician during a time when women traditionally stayed at home and were discouraged from higher pursuits of education. Studying Henney’s life and speaking to her in person can lead one to believe that she is a sort of “Renaissance woman”, a girl who excelled in mathematics in her home land of Germany and who grew to be the woman at the top of her college class in the United States. In addition to her mathematical work, Henney is a full-time mother and wife, speaks fluent English, German, and French, enjoys games of chess, and admires the artwork of old masters, such as Rubens. Honestly, the only downfall that I encountered upon speaking with Professor Henney and researching her life and works is that she considers her cooking to be “second-rate”, something that her husband “does not often favor”. Overall, Dagmar Renate Henney is a living testament to the power of human will, natural intellectual ability, and the proof that anything is possible.
When I spoke to Dagmar Henney, the first thing I was so surprised at was her soft tone of speaking. I must admit, I was a little intimidated to be calling a woman who had accomplished so many incredible things within her life and was now taking time to talk to a sophomore undergraduate who was writing a small paper about her life and work. Rather than speaking about her life, Professor Henney seemed more interested in discussing things about myself, displaying that she had a genuine interest in my interests, almost forgetting the fact that I was supposed to be writing a paper about her, rather than the other way around. Professor Henney was born Dagmar Renate Kirchner on May 6, 1931 to a Catholic father and Jewish mother, Albert and Margot Kirchner, in Berlin, Germany. The presence of the war, the Nazis, and the persecution of Jews all throughout Europe was the first obstacle in Henney’s life, and one that she does not like to talk about in great length. Although of Jewish blood, her father’s position as a physicist and his knowledge of math and science proved helpful to the Nazi powers and allowed for his survival, as well as her life. Professor Henney acknowledged the fact that it was her father’s teachings and love for physics that prompted her interest in the subject of mathematics as a young girl. In talking to her, it was obvious that she has much respect for her father, someone who she was close to as an only child within the war, stating, “You know, he was one of the ten most renown physicists in Germany and a colleague of another popular German physicist Werner Von Braun, as I was told by a former Professor. I don’t mean to brag at all, he spent his whole life in that field and loved it. He installed a love of the sciences, math and physics in me”(phone interview). Henney commented on the fact that she and her father would spend time playing chess, although it was not often that she could win against him. At an age when many children were rewarded with candy or material objects, Henney’s received a few set of math problems each rare occasion she would beat her father in a game of chess as her reward. Henney’s studies in mathematics and the teachings of her father that began during the war proved successful and important. At the age of 10, Henney was able to take and pass an exam required for her admittance to the Abitur High School in Hamburg, Germany. Of the entrance exam, she recalls, “ I was only 10 and I remember there were questions about a frog climbing a flag pole. He’d climb up a few centimeters and then slip back. We had to figure how long it would take him to climb the pole”(Washington Post). Despite the fact that it was during the war and the teachings of her father that installed Henney with a love for the mathematical field, the war times within Germany also brought about chaos and unhappiness. Professor Henney’s mother fell victim to the Nazis, killed at Auschwitz during the war.
Rather than dwell on her past, Professor Henney took a brave step in immigrating to the United States in 1952, at the age of 21. She describes her move, stating, “I came to the United States with one suitcase by myself due to the fact that both my mother and father were dead. I had a relative in the United States, Kurt Wieill, a popular German composer, unfortunately he had died before I could meet him” (phone interview). Despite the fact that Henney did not know a single person within the United States, she views her move to Florida as one of the best places to have chosen within the world. She describes her move from war torn Germany to Florida, stating that she went to Florida because it was “so close to the sun and Heaven”. She recalls the gray atmosphere of Germany, the rainy weather, and demolished ruins remaining from when the Russians invaded Berlin as being depressive to her spirit. Instead, Florida offered her a new beginning, someplace where there was perpetual sun, blue skies, and the sea. Of the sea, she remembers the time she spent looking and listening to the waves, a therapeutic tool that helped in healing her war memories of Germany.
In addition to her move to the United States, Henney’s career at the University of Miami can be considered anything but normal. As she entered the University, her work in high school allowed her to begin with sixty-three transferred credits. As somewhat of a mathematical prodigy, a phrase that Henney discourages anyone from using, it was obvious that she had a natural ability to undertake complex mathematical concepts and problems. Far from her basement in Germany, where she had first begun to learn math from her father, her mathematical years at the University of Miami proved incredibly successful and ones that Henney considers “the best years of my life”(email). After taking placement exams at the University, Henney received the highest marks amongst the entering freshmen, allowing her to be aided with financial scholarships from Tri-Delta and B’Nai B’Brith. Henney’s fast pace involving her intellectual pursuits did not stop at her placement exam. Rather, her beginning studies were mostly those of graduate level courses, including difficult subjects such as mathematics and nuclear physics (Miami Herald). Henny managed to earn a B.S. with a major in physics and a minor in mathematics and chemistry in addition to an M.S. from the University of Miami within three and a half years. Although her studies were largely based on science and mathematics, Professor Henney recalls her favorite professor at the University of Miami as being Professor Jack Reynolds, a Professor of Linguistics. She recalls that she took all of his courses dealing with “Middle, Old English, and Chaucer, despite the fact that I was teaching twelve credits and took nine math courses as a math assistant” (email). In addition to all of her schooling, Henney worked as a theatre cashier, making fifty-seven cents an hour. Despite the low wages, Henney takes positive experiences from her job at the theatre due to the fact that it was where she was able to perfect her English by “seeing all the movies three or four times” (Miami Herald). In addition, it was obvious that Henney’s life as a student was filled, but she was also able to pursue more personal interests as she met her future husband, Alan Henney, within one of her physics class. As a physics major himself, Alan Henney admiringly described Henney as “the smartest girl in the class”(Miami Herald). Despite the fact that Henney was also the only girl in the physics class of men, she states, “…it was nice of him to say so anyway”(Miami Herald). A year later, Dagmar and Alan were married and moved to their home at 9780 SW 49th Street within Miami.
In 1955, Alan moved to the University of Maryland to study for a master’s degree in physics and to work for the Naval ordinance laboratory. Shortly after in 1956, Henney moved to Takoma Park, Maryland to be with Alan. More importantly, Henney also began her doctorate work in 1956 at the University of Maryland where she would concentrate on advanced studies of additive set-values and Banach spaces, topics within functional analysis. While at the University of Maryland in 1957, Henney was finally naturalized as an American citizen while she continued her doctorate studies. She comments on her studies at the University of Maryland and her experience moving there as “enlightening”. She states, “I taught 18 credits and took graduate courses at the same time for $3,600 a year. I thought I was a millionaire since I had previously been working as a theatre cashier for fifty-seven cents an hour”(email). In addition, she was in charge of all off-campus math courses, which allowed her to travel back to Europe and many other interesting places, making friends such as Dr. Dieudonne, one of the renown French mathematicians of the time. In addition to her successes at Maryland, another hardship occurred due to the fact that Henney’s final doctoral thesis, entitled “The theory of set-valued additive functions defined on base-cones in Banach spaces with values in the collection of compact, convex sets” proved to be a little too defined for any doctoral advisors within the mathematics department at the University. Henney remarks that this time was sometimes confusing and frustrating due to the fact that she had no one to advise her in writing her thesis. Henney’s perseverance proved worthy though, when in 1965 and three advisors down, she finally was awarded her diploma in pure mathematics from the university. Her final thesis advisor ended up being Professor Gottlieb Koethe, a former Head of the University Heidelberg in Germany who was on sabbatical within the United States at the University of Maryland. Comically, Henney was presented a blank piece of paper upon graduating with the rest of her classmates due to the fact that she had forgotten to pay the sum of $100 for a diploma fee (Washington Post).
Although Henney was pursuing her doctoral thesis, she produced many articles on her research from the years of 1962 through 1965. Henney edited a book on “Open Questions in Mathematics”, which included some of the works of some of the most distinguished scientists and Nobel Prize winners around the world. In 1962, she published and researched such projects as the “Set-Valued Quadratic Functionals” and “One-Parameter Semigroups”.
Upon gaining her doctoral thesis in 1965, Henney wasted no time and was invited to present a lecture at the University of Freiburg discussing her research in functional equations. This would be one of the many guest lectures that she would perform for the mathematical community on an international level. Also in 1965, Henney began teaching as an associate professor of mathematics at The George Washington University. She fondly recalls her years at the University, possibly because within an earlier interview by the Miami Herald, it was stated that, “Dagmar’s ambition is to be a university mathematics professor” (Miami Herald). While at The George Washington University, she was allowed to become a member of various mathematical societies all over the world and even began a chapter of the Pi Mu Epsilon, a mathematical fraternity, at the university. Professor Henney finds the friends and students that she made at GWU as ones that she misses almost daily, stating that her general impression of the school as a whole was “definitely positive…I enjoyed my time at GWU so much that it is difficult to think of anything negative, although I could never figure out why I was granted no annual leave when I had a baby, but I had paid leave when I had a gallbladder operation” (email). In fact, while speaking to Professor Henney, she could not recall the exact year that she had retired, but stating that she wished that she could still be teaching at the University. As a true Professor, Henney states that “the excellent courses at GWU should be accessible to all, in teaching them on the Internet, enlarging the campus as much as possible (email).
If one were to list all of the accomplishments, honors, and groups to which Professor Henney received and was a member, it would illustrate her talent and her far-reaching ability to connect with students, fellow professors, and mathematicians from around the world. Amongst her most notable accomplishments throughout her lifetime thus far include being a member of Phi Beta Kappa, member of the “Who’s Who of American Women”, being listed in “The World’s Who’s Who”, being considered for the position of the President of University of Iowa and the Dean of the graduate school at the New York University, in addition to writing several books and publishing work within countless mathematical journals. Despite the fact that her lifetime can be considered remarkable in the fact that she succeeded as a woman in a field of mathematics, she very modestly remarks about her achievements, almost embarrassingly admitting to the long list of her lifetime accomplishments. Upon first trying to inquire about her life, she tried to persuade me into writing a paper about her son, in whom she takes great pride. Instead of talking about herself, she stated, “Are you getting me mixed up with [my] son who received his graduate MSIS degree magna cum laude at GWU, was interviewed by Dan Rather on CBS and on NPR “All Things Considered?” (email). In addition to being flattered by the request to write a short paper about her life and accomplishments, she seemed wholly surprised that someone could find her life to be interesting. In conclusion, I find it impossible for anyone not to find Professor Henney’s life as being remarkable, despite the fact that she often undermines her achievements, modestly and shyly discussing some of her past experiences, ones that I would consider amazing. As a woman, a teacher, a mother, and wife, Professor Dagmar Henney has much to offer and teach to younger generations of students, displaying the belief to never allow the bad within life to overcome the positive and that through hard work, anything is possible.
“UM Math Whiz Has Formula.” The Miami Herald [Miami] 5 Feb. 1956, sec. 3-B.
Barnes, Bart. “Wife Finds Diploma Fee Is Essential.” Washington Post 5 June 1956, sec
In first researching this paper, I consulted the University Archives at the George Washington University , to whom I owe a great deal in the first steps of writing this paper. The University Archives, located on the seventh floor of the Gelman Library, contains a whole file folder containing information on Professor Henney, spanning from her own publications, newspaper articles such as the Washington Post article listed above, and biographical lists that Professor Henney filled out while still a professor at the University. After consulting the archives, I proceeded in trying to find Professor Henney on the Internet. Although I was unable to find her name or e-mail address directly, I did manage to find the e-mail to a man by the name of Alan Henney, whom I suspected was either her husband or her son. After e-mailing Alan Henney, he kindly forwarded my e-mail to his mother who, luckily, proved to be Professor Dagmar Henney. I corresponded with Professor Henney over e-mail, before I called her over the phone. Talking to her over the phone, I was allowed to obtain much needed information that could substantially improve the quality of this paper, due to the personal nature of the information that she provided me with. I would like to thank her for being so kind throughout the whole process of researching and writing this paper. I have also corresponded with her through writing, where she kindly provided me with a copy of the Miami Herald newspaper article on her, something that the University Archives does not have, but I am happy to give to them in adding it to her folder so that more GWU students will be able to learn about her life.