Agnes Scott College

Anna Stafford Henriques

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August 20, 1905 - November 28, 2004


By Georgia Whidden, Senior Public Affairs Officer, Institute for Advanced Study

Reprinted with permission from Attributions, Issue One, 2001, Newsletter from the Development Office of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, NJ.

In October 1933, Anna Stafford came to the Institute for Advanced Study as a Member – or Worker, as Members were called then – in the School of Mathematics, whose work she has generously supported over the years.

Albert Einstein also arrived in Princeton that same month and year to join the Faculty of the newly-formed Institute, which had been founded in 1930 and three years later opened its doors in borrowed quarters in Princeton University's Fine Hall. Stafford was one of two young women [Mabel Schmeiser was the other] in that first small group of mathematicians who came to the new Institute to work with its outstanding faculty: James Alexander, Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, Oswald Veblen, and Hermann Weyl. In 1934 this group was joined by visiting professor P.A.M. Dirac.

To earn her living during these Depression years and also manage to be at the Institute, young Stafford arranged to teach mornings at a private secondary school in Mendham, N.J., and to come to the Institute every afternoon. "By strange good luck," Stafford, now aged 95, recalled in a recent interview at her home in Washington, D.C., "the Institute always had lectures at 3:00, and then we had tea, and then we met again at 4:30. So I got to the lectures just fine. If you wanted to give a talk, you put a notice on the secretary's door, and that's the way 'classes' were held. And of course nobody told where Einstein's office was. There was a boarding house where a lot of the mathematicians lived. I would also come down on weekends and we would all talk and argue. It wasn't a bit elegant – but that didn't matter."

Anna Stafford was born in Chicago on August 20, 1905. Anna shared her mother's love of mathematics, and knew by the time she was fourteen that her future would include a career either in the field itself or in something closely related to it. Perhaps, she thought then, she might become an astronomer.

Without regarding it as anything out of the ordinary, Stafford double-majored in mathematics and Greek at Western College for Women [started in Oxford, Ohio in 1855 as the "western" sister school of Mount Holyoke]. After graduation in 1926, she began a pattern of working during the year teaching mathematics at a secondary school in New Jersey, and spending summers in graduate school at the University of Chicago, where she worked with the mathematician Mayme Logsdon. She earned an S.M. degree in 1931 from Chicago, and received one of six Ph.D.s the University awarded in 1933 in mathematics, two of them to women.

A turning point for Stafford while she was at Chicago came when she heard a lecture on topology given by University of Michigan mathematician Raymond Wilder (also a Member in the School of Mathematics in 1933-34). "I thought, aha – that's what I like," Stafford recalled. "But there was very little to find on the subject, and what little there was to find was done by a man named Oswald Veblen, who had written a book called Analysis Situs (1922), and by James Alexander. And that [Princeton] was the only place I knew that you could study topology. So I wrote to Princeton and said I wanted to study topology, and they sent me a postal card saying, "We don't take girls."

"Then," Stafford continued, "I read about the Institute in The New York Times ("Einstein Institute Has 20 Students," January 20, 1933). The article said that Veblen and Alexander were there, at the Institute. And I said, 'that's where I'm going.'"

Stafford wrote to Professor Veblen on March 6, 1933. "I feel," she wrote, "that my mathematical career is still too near its beginnings for me to begin work that is not done under competent direction such as I hope to find at the Institute for Advanced Study ... I think I have laid good foundations for the sort of work which in Combinatorial Topology can scarcely be carried out anywhere so well as at Princeton, and which I believe is just the sort of training the Institute plans to furnish. I hope that by some means I shall be able to continue my work there in the not too distant future. I am eagerly anticipating your visit to Chicago in April, when I hope plans for next year will be more complete."

Stafford did meet with Veblen when he visited Chicago. "I told him what I wanted to do," she recalled. "He said if I could get my [Ph.D.] degree in August, I could come to the Institute – never dreaming that I could possibly do it! Mrs. Logsdon agreed to teach a course in topology. In order to do that we had to learn Italian and we had a handwritten text on topology reproduced. And we studied at the University of Chicago, and of course nobody there knew anything about it. Except – I was going to learn." On May 4, Stafford wrote to thank Veblen for his recommendations, and to let him know that as far as her plans to come to Princeton, she had arranged to work in the mornings and come to the Institute in the afternoons. But the condition, of course, was that she must obtain her Ph.D. in the meantime.

On August 31, 1933, Stafford wrote to inform Veblen that "the University of Chicago conferred the degree of Doctor of Philosophy upon me last Friday, so I hasten to remind you that I am most eager to come to the Institute." "Out of scores of applicants," Institute Founding Director Abraham Flexner reported to his Board of Trustees on October 9, 1933, "seventeen were accepted by Professor Veblen, who passed on their qualifications ... The creative faculty, the possession of ideas, the ability to work more or less alone under the stimulus and guidance of real masters in a given field: these are the criteria which have been applied to those who have asked to be admitted to the Institute. Their success and influence will not depend upon numbers but upon quality, as has been emphasized from the outset ... They [the applicants] have all given evidence of ability to do original work. They need, however, at this moment in their respective careers contact with older and wiser persons, to whom they may bring their problems for informal discussion and whose lectures or seminars they may attend in order that they may broaden and deepen their knowledge of mathematics and kindred subjects."

Anna Stafford enjoyed her years at the Institute – not only the mathematics, but also the social life. Abraham Flexner commented on this aspect of Institute life in his report to the Board on January 29, 1934. "Fine Hall has offered abundant opportunity to cultivate delightful social relations in this highly varied group," Flexner observed. "Every afternoon tea is served, and there is an attendance of 60 to 75 mathematicians, who discuss with one another the subjects upon which they are working and sometimes fortunately subjects which have no direct relation to their work."

Anna Stafford remembers other social events at the Institute, and one dance in particular. "Every year Mrs. Alexander and Mrs. von Neumann threw a party," she recalled, "an absolutely fantastic party, at the Alexander's house, which had a ballroom. There were hardly any women guests, maybe six women to twenty men – you should go to a ball like that! A great big tall thin man asked me to dance, and we waltzed all over the room. Shamelessly. Just had the best waltz you ever had in your life. It was absolute motion. He didn't talk. During an intermission, friends asked if I knew who that was. And I said no – I guess I'd been introduced, but all I knew was he had a lot of initials. It was a most fantastic dance – I still have those shoes!" The man with whom Anna Stafford danced the night away was P.A.M. Dirac.

Stafford found that she loved to teach. In 1935 she accepted a position at the University of Nebraska as Instructor in mathematics, and after two years there she moved to the University of Utah, where she taught mathematics for the next nineteen years, leaving in 1956 to go to the College of Santa Fe as Professor of Mathematics. In 1971 she retired from Santa Fe, after teaching mathematics at the college level for 36 years, and at the secondary level for seven.

Her tenure at the University of Utah was notable not only for the fact that while there she started a mathematics club and served as the president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics in Utah, but also, in 1942, met and married her husband, Douglas, whose work as an administrative law judge eventually lead the Henriques family to Washington, D.C., where Dr. Henriques and her son, Vico, now live.

Asked whether those two early years spent at the Institute lived up to her expectations, Dr. Henriques responded, "Oh my, yes. It was two years in Heaven."


Note: Anna Henriques died of congestive heart failure in 2004 at the age of 99. Her obituary in the Washington Post said that after her husband, Douglas, died in 1987, she moved to Goodwin House-Baileys Crossroads in the Falls Church, Virginia, area, where "She continued to teach, giving talks on mathematics to other Goodwin House residents well into her nineties."

References

  1. Sullivan, Patricia. "Mathematics Pioneer Anna Henriques Dies," Obituary, Washington Post, December 2, 2004, page B06.
  2. Mathematics Genealogy Project

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Vico Henriques