Agnes Scott College

Lida Barrett

Lida Barrett

May 21, 1927 - January 28, 2021


Lida K. Barrett was a mathematician and mathematics educator. Born in Houston, Texas, she earned a baccalaureate from Rice University (1946), a masters from the University of Texas (1949), and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania (1954)--all in mathematics. Her dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania was on "Regular Curves and Regular Points of Finite Order," written under the supervision of John Kline and Dick Anderson.

Immediately following graduation from Rice she was employed as a mathematician at the Schlumberger Well Surveying Corporation. The academic year 1947-48 she taught at the Texas State College for Women (now Texas Woman's University.) Following her doctorate she taught one year at the University of Connecticut while her husband held a postdoctoral appointment at Yale.

She has served as a mathematics faculty member at the University of Utah and the University of Tennessee and as Head of the mathematics department at the University of Tennessee from 1973 to 1980. She has served as an administrator and mathematics faculty member at Northern Illinois University, where she was Associate Provost, and at Mississippi State University, where she was Dean of Arts and Sciences. After retirement as Dean Emerita from MSU, she was a Senior Associate to the head of the Education Directorate at the National Science Foundation for three years and then a Professor of Mathematics at the United States Military Academy at West Point for three years.

While at Tennessee, during her husband's tenure as department head, she ran an independent mathematical consulting business, including editorial work for book publishers, primarily for calculus texts, and work at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Her thesis work and initial publications were in General Topology. At Oak Ridge, her work and publications were in applied mathematics. Her recent work and publications have been in mathematics education.

She has been active in the American Mathematics Society, including chairing the Committee on Employment and Educational Policy (1979-82). In the Mathematical Association of American she served on a large number of committees and as President in 1989 and 1990. As the second female president of the MAA, she sought to increase minority membership and involvement in the MAA and within the mathematics community. She helped initiate and enhance MAA programs and committees highlighting minority interests. In 2008 the Mathematical Association of America presented Barrett with the Yueh-Gin Gung and Dr. Charles Y. Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics [Citation].

She was on the planning committee for the International Congress in Mathematics Education in Madrid, Spain, in July of 1996. She was a member of the advisory committee of the Harvard Calculus Consortium and of the Adolescence and Young Adult/Mathematics Standards committee for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.


The following obituary was written by Lida Barrett's daughter, Maidel Margulies. It is reprinted here with permission.

Lida Kittrell Barrett, 93, of Knoxville, passed away Thursday, January 28, 2021, at Shannondale Health Care Center, shortly after last rites were administered by the Episcopal Church of the Ascension.

She was born and grew up in Houston, Texas, and by the age of 18, she had already earned her bachelor's degree in mathematics from Rice Institute. She went on to get her master's at the University of Texas and her doctorate at the University of Pennsylvania. Though her dissertation, "Regular Curves and Regular Points of Finite Order," involved pure math, she excelled in applied mathematics, working for Schlumberger and at the Defense Research Lab at the University of Texas. Of her work at the Lab, Lida maintained, "I could have gotten a Master's in physics for the work I did," but her studies and duties left no time for her to write it up.

It was at the University of Texas that she met her future husband, John H. Barrett, a fellow grad student who was also working toward a Ph.D. in mathematics. They were married in 1950. With doctorates in hand, Lida and John moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, to teach at the University of Utah and to pursue their dream of becoming parents. They succeeded, adopting three children in the course of four years.

After they moved to Knoxville in 1961, they taught at the University of Tennessee, he as head of the mathematics department, and, because of anti-nepotism rules, she as an untenured instructor instead of full professor. Lida focused her ambitions at the time by serving as an independent mathematical consultant, doing editorial jobs for book publishers (primarily calculus texts), and working at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, where her focus and publications were in applied mathematics.

Lida and John established deep roots and friendships in the Knoxville community, especially at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension and at the University of Tennessee. After John's devastating death in 1969, at the young age of 46, from complications following a kidney transplant, Lida persevered. She kept her family of three kids together and became the third woman to be offered a tenured position at the College of Arts and Sciences, eventually taking over as head of the math department (1973–80). She was one of the first women in the country to hold such a position, yet the headline announcing her hire said, "Wife gets husband's job." She was none too pleased.

Continuing a career in administration, she took positions as Associate Provost at Northern Illinois University; Dean of Arts and Sciences at Mississippi State University; and Senior Associate to the Head of the Education Directorate at the National Science Foundation. Before retiring, she wished to get back to her teaching roots and took a post as professor of mathematics at West Point. Lida was known for expanding opportunities for the underrepresented in mathematics and improving undergraduate education and teaching practice. She chaired the American Mathematical Society's Committee on Employment and Educational Policy and became the second woman to be elected president of the Mathematical Association of America (MAA), where she encouraged participation and membership of minorities and women.

She served on the advisory committee of the Harvard Calculus Consortium and was a member of the Adolescence and Young Adult/Mathematics Standards committee for the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards.

Lida supported national awareness initiatives such as Mathematics Awareness Week (later Mathematics Awareness Month) and strengthened the relationship between the MAA and the American Mathematical Society.

She was on the planning committee for the International Congress in Mathematics Education in Madrid, Spain (1996) and was active in MAA committees, the American Mathematical Society, the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards, and the Mathematical Science Education Board.

In 2008, the MAA presented her with the Gung and Hu Award for Distinguished Service to Mathematics. She was part of the 2019 class of fellows of the Association for Women in Mathematics.

A former colleague tells a story that perfectly illustrates her formidable nature: "In her first month Lida was at a meeting with one of the two generals who lead West Point, and in a briefing one general gave, he did not use inclusive language, and Lida interrupted him on the spot—something you do not do to a general, certainly not one who leads West Point at West Point—and corrected his speech. There was a low murmur in the large room from all the military present, but those of us who knew her were not at all surprised."

Lida was fun, competent, dedicated, infuriating, loyal, pathbreaking, and accomplished, and in order to be that she was also not afraid of making people uncomfortable to make the world a better place. She loved to read and was a member of at least two book groups. Every day, she devoured the local paper and on Sunday, the New York Times.

Her warmth and easy hospitality drew people in, and she enjoyed hosting friends and family, especially at her lake house, which upon her retirement, she named "Aftermath." She was an active and beloved member of the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, the Associate Order of St. Helena, and the Order of the Daughters of the King.

References

  1. Personal communication
  2. Lida Baker Kittrell Barrett, 1989-1990 MAA President, Mathematical Association of America website
  3. Interviewed by Kenneth Ross, MAA Focus, December 2103/January 2014, p30-31.
  4. Author Profile at zbMath
  5. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  6. Mathematics Genealogy Project

Photo Credit: Photograph is used with permission of Lida Barrett