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 NCB Deposit  # 110

Shirley B. Gray
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Memorabilia of Olga Taussky-Todd 

A Woman in Mathematics in the 20th Century

Austrian Cross of Honor
Austrian Cross of Honor

  The Austrian-American mathematician Olga Taussky-Todd is best known for accomplishments in three areas.
*  Matrix Theory
*  Number Theory
*  Being a Pioneer for Women in Mathematics
This is not a biography.  We focus on a few of the unusual aspects of a truly lovely life.

The recent release of a video on Richard Courant and the Courant Institute at N. Y. U. reminds us of the very rich scholarly atmosphere imported to the United States from Europe in the 1930s and 40s.  Among those making this journey was Olga Taussky-Todd, a fellow student with Gödel in Vienna. 

Being born in Olmütz, Austro-Hungry and ending in Pasadena, California
, Olga's life spanned most of the 20th century (1906-1995).  She was possibly the first woman to earn a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Vienna (1930).  Her thesis on number theory was published in "Crelle's Journal" in 1932.  To earn money she often tutored students.

"I had a very tough time as a thesis student. I had no colleagues whatsoever and hardly saw my teacher, who for quite a while did not direct me towards a specific problem."
Being "professional" she had the luck to meet Richard Courant at a meeting of the German Mathematical Society.  In 1931 she was appointed by him to edit the first volume of Hilbert's complete works on number theory.  Moving to Göttingen she also assisted Emmy Noether.  Courant advised her to leave Germany.  Within the years of 1931-1935 she tutored in Vienna, lived in Göttingen, crossed the Atlantic to Bryn Mawr College, returned to Cambridge, England and then moved on to London.  In London she soon met another mathematician and future husband, John (Jack) Todd, an Irishman full of the blarney.  Be reminded this was before travel by airplane.
"My life and my career would have been so different if my Irishman had not come along."
Those of us living in the Caltech community will always remember Jack and Olga with a tremendous amount of love.  They lived near campus and usually walked to work.  They rarely walked alone or side by side.  Jack was always in front, even on wide walkways or at the swimming pool.  Olga followed perhaps 5 feet behind.  This resulted in two greetings to those they passed on the street, first from Jack who always was full of charm and then from Olga, often wearing a floppy hat but always having a smile and dancing eyes.  Together they rarely missed a mathematics department colloquium or Caltech party.  In a way they were almost icons for a pair of academics in the 1950s, very comfortable with themselves and their roles in life.

In addition to both Todd's papers and oral histories, the Caltech Archives has several interesting items that deserve to be enjoyed by a wider audience of mathematicians.
Lecturing at Caltech in 1961.
Her Ph. D. diploma from the University of Vienna:
When the recently graduated Taussky went to work with Courant in Göttingen in 1931, he bought her a travel iron.  According to Jack,  Courant told Olga she "had to take more care of her appearance."
Olga's iron
The iron appears never to have been used.
This portrait of Olga Taussky-Todd was painted by Clara P. Ewald in Belfast, November, 1939.
She was 33 years old.

Austrian Cross of Honor The Austrian Cross of Honor in Science and Arts, First Class

Scenes from the Caltech campus near Olga Taussky-Todd's office.
Dabney Courtyard CIT
On the left is a mural found in the Dabney House patio.  Students changed the name from "Galileo" to "Feynman."  He was a contemporary at Caltech.

Below is a cannon fired on important events.

At Caltech, Jack and Olga were good friends of Rudy and Laura Marcus.  On Laura's birthday, Jack gave her some of Olga's momentos including a tiger's eye ring from Ireland and coins from Austria.
Note from Jack Todd to Laura Marcus
Olga's ring


References and Comments
Clues to Olga's personality are found in how she described her mother and father.
"My father was a very interesting man, very active, very creative.  ... My mother was a country girl ...a rather quiet lady ... educated to be a housewife."

Please grant the freedom for us to paraphrase:

"Jack Todd was a very interesting man, very active, very creative.   Olga Taussky-Toddd was a simple European girl ...a rather quiet lady ...educated to be a mathematician.

Don Albers, former Director of Publications for the MAA, was a good friend of Jack and Olga.  See
D. Albers,  John Todd-Numerical Mathematics Pioneer, The College Mathematics Journal, Vol. 38 (1), January, 2007, 2- 23.  Albers chronicles their lives over many years.
 <  >
The National Curve Bank and mathematicians everywhere thank Shelley Erwin and Loma Karklins of the Caltech Archives for opening this collection to our viewers. It is difficult to grasp the subtleties of Olga's life without some feel for her personality.

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