April 8, 1938 -
Mary Lee Wheat Gray was born in Nebraska in 1938. Her favorite subjects in high school were mathematics, history and physics. She then went on to receive her bachelor of science degree in mathematics and physics from Hastings College in 1959, graduating at the top of her class. With the assistance of a Fulbright scholarship, she spent one year at the J.W.Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, then began graduate studies at the University of Kansas. She earned her master's degree in 1962 and her Ph.D. in 1964 in the area of ring theory, becoming only the second woman to receive a Ph.D. in mathematics at Kansas. The first had been in 1926. Her thesis dissertation was entitled "Radical Subcategories." An article with this title was published in the Pacific Journal of Mathematics, Vol. 23 (1967), p79-89 [Abstract].
After graduating from Kansas, Gray had appointments at the University of California, Berkeley, and at California State University, Hayward, before joining the faculty of American University in 1968. During this time she also married Alfred Gray, himself a mathematician. She has remained at American University and is now professor of mathematics. She has served as chair of the department of mathematics and statistics, was director of the university's women's studies program for 1988-1989, and served two terms as president of the faculty senate.
Mary Gray was one of the primary founders of the Association for Women in Mathematics and its first president from 1971 to 1973. Patricia Kenschaft provides the following story about one of Gray's first acts as president [6, p134]:
Mary Gray decided that women needed to be more integral to the central decision-making process of the American Mathematical Society. Shortly after she became president of the AWM, she carefully read the AMS bylaws and discovered that the AMS Council meetings were officially open to all members. One of her first acts as first AWM president was to show up in the room where the Council was about to meet and sit down.
She was asked to leave. She replied that according to the bylaws, the AMS Council meetings were open to all members, and she was a duly paid member. The response was that there was a gentleman's agreement that only board members would be present during board meetings.
"I'm not a gentleman," was her now-famous reply. "I'm staying."
In 1976 Gray was elected the second female vice president of the American Mathematical Society, 70 years after Charlotte Scott became the first female vice president. Not content to just study and teach mathematics, Gray received her J.D. degree summa cum laude from Washington College of Law in 1979 and joined the Maryland Bar. In 1993 she was awarded a Doctor of Laws honoris causa from the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. She has also received honorary degrees of Doctor of Humane Letters from Hastings College in 1996 and from Mount Holyoke College in 2008. Her current academic interests include applied statistics, computer law, and language and gender issues in mathematics. She is the author of books and papers in the fields of mathematics, mathematics education, computer science, applied statistics, economic equity, discrimination law, and academic freedom.
In 1991 Gray received special recognition and a certificate at the annual banquet of the Association for Women in Mathematics. The citation read:
It is especially fitting that Mary Gray be honored at the Twentieth Anniversary meeting of the AWM, since she is the one person most responsible for the existence of this organization; for years her name was virtually synonymous with AWM. She ran the organization almost single-handedly for its first two and a half years, serving as chair during that period and producing the Newsletter for the first four years.
During this same period, Mary was working to insure broader membership participation in the established mathematical societies. She worked to open AMS Council meetings to observers, as provided in the bylaws, and to make common practice the nomination by petition for certain AMS offices. In 1976, Mary became the second woman Vice President of the Society (nominated by petition) and the first in seventy years.
On an even broader front, Mary has been active on Committee W, the Committee on Women of the American Association of University Professors, serving as its chair from 1973 until 1978 and again since 1986. She served as President of Women's Equity Action Leagues from 1982 to 1988. Her concern for the rights of all humans is evidenced by her involvement with Amnesty International, currently as Treasurer and member of the Board of Directors of Amnesty International USA.
Mary Gray received the 1994 Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She was recognized for "the extraordinary number of women and underrepresented minorities she has affected in her career both directly and indirectly through the influence of her former students and the programs she has initiated and developed. Her twenty doctoral students include eleven women and five African American women." [Ruskai]. The award presentation also cited Gray for her work on behalf of international human rights. In 1993 she became chair of the USA Board of Directors of Amnesty International. In addition, she has held leadership positions in many other national and international organizations, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the American Association of University Professors. In 2001 Gray was awarded a Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Engineering, and Mathematics Mentoring.
In 1996, Mary Gray and Nina Roscher, Department of Chemistry, received a $95,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to encourage young women at American University to strengthen their mathematics and science studies, and to not drop such classes as often happens in college. The two faculty members devised a program that would allow 25 first-year women students to explore the connections between public policy, science, and mathematics.
Mary Gray received the 2012 Elizabeth L. Scott Award from the Committee of Presidents of Statistical Societies. You can read about how she moved from theoretical statistics to applying statistics to social change in this article from American University.
Photo Credit: Photographs used with permission of Mary Gray