December 9, 1998
Skills add up to science medal
Winner says award proves women equal to the task in math
When Cathleen Synge Morawetz left the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a
master's degree in math half a century ago, she says, "I just wanted what a man could
get" a good job.
But Morawetz learned that the best jobs at companies like General Electric weren't open
to women. So she went off to New York University to earn her Ph.D., where she found
mentors who, she says, judged her by the quality of her thinking, not her gender.
On Tuesday, Morawetz's thinking earned her the highest honor in U.S. science, a National
Medal of Science, awarded by President Clinton. She is the first woman to receive the
medal for work in mathematics.
"It's a tremendous moment for me," says Morawetz, now 75 and an NYU professor emerita.
"And I hope it will draw attention to the idea that women can do math and will have
some influence on women all the way from grade school to graduate school and beyond."
That kind of boost is sorely needed, says Sylvia Wiegand, president of the Association for
Women in Mathematics.
"We have a real problem with encouraging young women to go into mathematics, even
though we should be well beyond that," says Wiegand, a professor at the University of
"There still are a lot of talented women who don't stick with it," she says,
because they are convinced that math is for men.
Just a quarter of Ph.D.s in math go to women, Wiegand says. And women remain
underrepresented, she says, on the math faculties of top universities.
For Morawetz, the decision to pursue a math career was not too difficult. She had the
support of her father, John L. Synge, an eminent mathematician who taught at the
University of Toronto, and her mother, Eleanor, who also studied math.
"Both of my parents felt very strongly that a woman should have a profession and that
women were as capable of doing anything as men were."
Morawetz, raised in both Canada and her parents' Irish homeland, has been a U.S. citizen
since 1950 and has spent most of her career at NYU's Courant Institute of Mathematical
She is known for developing mathematical models used in aerodynamics, acoustics and
optics. Her work helped engineers develop airplane wings that minimize the impact of shock
She was only the second woman to serve as president of the American Mathematical Society..
And in the midst of her career, she and husband Herbert a refugee from World War II
Czechoslovakia who became a well-known chemist raised four children, now all
successful professionals. They have six grandchildren.
When she was having her children, Morawetz says, "I took a certain amount of
criticism from other women who wondered why I was having children if I wanted a career or
why I was pursuing a career if I wanted children."
In 1990, she was honored by the National Organization for Women Legal Defense Fund for
raising her children with a "commitment to equality at home."
The latest award "means a great deal" to women in math and is well deserved,
Wiegand says. "She's been a role model to a lot of us."
Elizabeth Toledo, a vice president at the National Organization for Women, says: "We
have to change the way we teach girls, and we need role models so that girls can see
themselves succeeding in this field. So she's providing one of the elements necessary for
By Kim Painter, USA TODAY
Copyright 1998, USA Today. Reprinted with permission.
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