Thursday, June 3, 2021

Tracking Down Who Was the First Female Full Professor in OR in the World and Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due

In the past few days I have been quite busy and not just with the preparation of plenary talks for conferences this month and the writing of papers. I have been approached through emails by males in both the US and the UK to answer (or to try to answer) the following question - who was the first female Full Professor of Operations Research (OR) in the world? This question arose, and it is an important one, because of the passing of Dr. Ailsa Land, short of her 94th birthday, on May 16, 2021.  I had written a blogpost celebrating her and also Marguerite Frank, both then of age 93. Dr. Land was the recipient of the Harold Larnder Prize, the Beale Medal (first female to receive these major awards), and will also receive posthumously the EURO Gold Medal at the EURO 2021 Conference in Athens, Greece, next month. 

Please refer to this obituary for Dr. Land, prepared by the institution she had received her PhD from and had worked at for many years - the London School of Economics (LSE).

Graham Rand and Laszlo Vegh (who was prominent in the blogpost I noted above) were preparing another obituary for Dr. Ailsa Land and were wondering whether she may have been the first female Full Professor of  OR in the world. She received this title at LSE in 1980. I was also contacted by Mark Eisner, who chaired for many years the INFORMS History & Traditions Committee that I had also served on, trying to determine who was the first such female professor in the US to achieve the rank of Full Professor in OR. And, of course, my PhD advisor at Brown University, Stella Dafermos, about whom I have blogged on multiple occasions, came to mind, as did Judith Liebman, who, like Stella, received a PhD in OR from Johns Hopkins University. Stella received her PhD in 1968 and Judith in 1971. We knew that Judith had become Full Professor at the University of Illinois in 1984. I had written several obituaries when Stella Dafermos passed away in 1990 but these did not contain the year at which she became a Full Professor.

Time was running short and this morning a message came from the UK: "We are running out of time Anna." No pressure on me, of course! I then sent a message to Stella's husband, a Chaired Professor of Applied Math at Brown (and had sent multiple messages to others in the meantime), Dr. Constantine Dafermos. He graciously went to campus and told me that Stella became a Full Professor at Brown University in 1982 with appointments both in the Division of Applied Mathematics and Engineering. There is more to this, but left for another time and post.

I also sent a message out on Twitter and am grateful to all those across the globe who are trying to identify whether there was a female in OR who became a Full Professor before 1980.

In the meantime, Graham Rand, with support, has completed another obituary for Dr. Ailsa Land, and we feel quite "safe" in that she was the first female Full Professor of OR (called Operational Research) definitely in the UK, and probably in the world! If additional information to the contrary becomes available, you will hear from me. 

But the plot thickens. In trying to identify what year exactly Stella Dafermos became a Full Professor at Brown and I know that she was the first female Full Professor in both Applied Mathematics and in Engineering because I was her first PhD student and we worked closely together on many papers I came upon several "news releases" from Brown University that attributed others as being the "first." Stella, sadly, passed away at age 49 on April 1990, so she can't speak for herself but I can, so  I am.  The following article, from Brown University Engineering, no less, identifies the first female Full Professor of Engineering as getting this appointment in 2008 -- 26 years after Stella!

Giving credit where credit is due is imperative and I hope that my alma mater, Brown University, makes appropriate corrections! How easily, it seems, major institutions, and that includes research universities, can "forget" the legacy of females. 

I shared the above "oversights" with Professor Constantine Dafermos today, and he wrote me back a message that I will treasure, which included, in part: "... the obstacles that women of that generation had to overcome cannot be overemphasized. It is a good fortune that the success of several, though not enough, outstanding women like you have turned things around." 

As a scientist and as a researcher, we seek the truth. Much work remains to be done and speaking out plays a role. Thank you for reading! And, if anything needs correcting, please, let me know!