Wars Change Lives

March 2, 2002


Grace Murray Hopper, who had a PhD in mathematics (Yale, 1934), "was all over the computer science map" in the post-World War II years.
Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Improbable Warriors: Women Scientists and the U.S. Navy in World War II. Kathleen Broome Williams, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Maryland, 2001, 280 pages (including copious notes and bibliography), $34.95.

It is for a good reason that the word "antebellum" exists in the English language. To most people the word may suggest hoopskirts at Tara, but its real function is to point out that wars change lives.

The relationship between war and women, one of the many changes produced in the United States by World War II, is an underlying theme of the book under review. Many thousands of women served the armed forces in the Navy's WAVES, the Army's WAAC, in other service units, and in ancillary technological organizations, such as NACA (the predecessor of NASA). Many of these women reached the rank of officer. The slow development and the frequently (at the time) questioned necessity of such service units are detailed in the first chapter of Improbable Warriors. The book then proceeds to celebrate the careers of four women scientists who achieved high rank and great accomplishment in the technological war effort and later. The four are Mary Sears (1905-1997); Florence van Straten (1913-1992); Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992); Mina Spiegel Rees (1902-1997). The title of the book is apt; the numbers of such women are relatively small.

Though publicly cited and loaded with honors by the scientific, educational, and military establishments, both in their lifetimes and posthumously, none of these women are known to the larger community. A library at CUNY Graduate School is named after Rees. The U.S.S. Hopper, a guided missile destroyer, plies the waves. Sears also has a Navy vessel named for her.

On the other hand, at least to my generation of mathematicians, Rees and Hopper are well known for their postbellum accomplishments. Of Mina Rees, it used to be said that if you had a contract from the Office of Naval Research, then basically you had her to thank for it. One remembers Grace Hopper for FLOWMATIC, the (arguably) first business language-oriented compiler, or for her great influence as a member of the committee that specified COBOL.

All four women came to the war effort with PhDs. Mary Sears was trained in planktonology: Harvard, 1933. Florence van Straten in physical chem-istry: NYU, 1939. Grace Hopper in mathematics, under Oystein Ore: Yale, 1934. Mina Rees in mathematics, under L.E. Dickson: University of Chicago, 1931.

"Wanting to put their brains to work in the cause of victory" during World War II, the four women profiled in the book under review moved into new areas of specialization. Mina Rees, with a PhD in mathematics from the University of Chicago (1931), made her mark in scientific administration.

All four went from graduate school to professorial positions. In this they were lucky: In the 1930s, the academic job market was exceedingly tight, and the prospects for women in all the professions were additionally restrictive as well as completely static. When the war came, these four women, wanting to put their brains to work in the cause of victory, volunteered. They changed their specialties. Mary Sears became an oceanographer, Florence van Straten a meteorologist, Grace Hopper a computer scientist, Mina Rees a science administrator. The first three achieved officer status in the Navy; Rees worked as a civilian.

When the war was over, van Straten spent the next 16 years working for the Naval Weather Service as an atmospheric physicist. Sears returned to the study of her beloved siphonophores. Mina Rees became head of the mathematics branch at ONR, and Grace Hopper went from Aiken's Mark computers at Harvard to industry, then returned to the Navy in its Data Automation Command. She was all over the computer science map.

While Improbable Warriors cannot be regarded as a feminist document in the current intense sense of the word, the outlines of the slowly changing role of women as professionals are clearly delineated. World War II acted to accelerate the acceptance of women in the scientific and technological fields---and more generally in the community of professionals. The second significant push, e.g., in law and medicine, did not come until the 1970s and 80s.

Improbable Warriors is a part of a very large and growing buildup of documents in the now popular academic field of women's studies. Its author, Kathleen Williams, is a professor of history at Bronx Community College, CUNY, specializing in military history, and a frequent writer on women's issues. The Naval Institute Press has itself published more than a half dozen books on the wartime careers of women.

Williams's book serves a dual, possibly a threefold purpose. She has embedded the stories of her selected women (and tangentially, but with much shorter writeups, of numerous other women) in the larger history of the administrative aspects of World War II scientific organizations, either existing or specially created. On page xvii, the list of the acronyms of twenty-five such organizations, from the AMG (Applied Mathematics Group) to the WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), can serve as a measure of the complexity of institutional relationships and a clue as to why such a large portion of the text is taken up with organizational history. Williams's book also serves to describe the difficulties that the military brass in those days had in communicating with scientists, and particularly with mathematicians. The considerable involvement of scientists and mathematicians with military developments in the subsequent half-century points to a diminution, though not a total eradication, of such problems.

It will come as no surprise that in addition to the books I consider for review, I am a voracious reader. At the moment, my favorite category is biography. These days biographies seem to run to six or seven hundred pages. They record for posterity almost day-to-day occurrences, most of which go far beyond the consideration of the special whatever-it-is that makes the subject worthy of having her/his life written up in the first place. Particularly desired by today's sensation-adoring readers (as well as by publishers) are the details of the subject's love life, the subject's joys and sufferings. Also popular are the "trashings" (a.k.a. re-evaluations) that knock the biographees from previously established pedestals down to the level of common humanity.

Poets, novelists, politicians, actors, limelight personalities of all sorts, male and female, have had their lives and sorrows fully described---one might even say their lives have been "bugged"---by contemporary biographers. So also have a few mathematicians. I'm thinking of Kurt Gödel or Alan Turing or Charles S. Peirce or John Nash. (See the review of the movie A Beautiful Mind.) Well, the personal lives of these people were remarkable.

Improbable Warriors is just not in this category of biography. The personal lives of the "Improbable Warriors" are given only perfunctory treatment. If anything, the book tells more about the development of military research and of the workings of scientific organizations than it does about the nontechnical parts of the lives of the four selected subjects. The women come across as highly talented but somewhat colorless, as bland idealists who did what they did in 1942-46 because they believed they were capable of special contributions for the benefit of their country. As each woman found strength, she fought against the strictures of the times, but none were active as feminists.

But did I say colorless and bland? No way, as I can personally testify from my slight postbellum acquaintance with Grace Hopper and Mina Rees. I am thinking of the driving ambition of the former and the great charm of the latter. The author has promised us a comprehensive treatment of Grace Hopper. I hope that in the near term someone will do the same for Mina Rees and that some of the color will be restored to our pictures of both of these women.

I wrote this review as the United States was beginning its war against world terrorism. I wonder what permanent social changes will emerge from this tragic period.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.


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