Agnes Scott College

Joan S. Birman


May 30, 1927 -

Joan Sylvia Lyttle Birman was born in New York City. She attended an all-girls' high school, then went on to Swarthmore College. She transferred to Barnard College of Columbia University, where she received her B.A. in 1948, and then earned an M.S. in physics from Columbia in 1950. That same year she married Joesph Birman, a theoretical physicist. After working for various companies that designed electronic equipment for aircraft and raising three children, Birman returned to school to pursue graduate studies at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. She received her Ph.D. in 1968 with a thesis on "Braid Groups and Their Relationship to Mapping Class Groups" [Abstract]. After teaching for a few years at the Stevens Institute of Technology, Birman joined the faculty at Barnard College in 1973, chairing the department in 1973-1987, 1989-1991, and 1995-1998. She is currently Research Professor Emeritus at Barnard.

Birman has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the Technion (Israel Institute of Technology) as well as other honors such as a Sloan Foundation Fellowship, 1974-76, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, 1994-1995. Her research has been in topology and knot theory in which she has written over 60 research manuscripts and 5 books. The 1996 Chauvenet Prize for expository writing was awarded to Joan Birman by the Mathematical Association of America for her article "New points of view in knot theory," which appeared in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society 28 (April 1993), pages 253-287 [Abstract, Article]. In 2005 she received the New York City Mayor's Award for Excellence in Science and Technology.

Read Wai-Ting Lam's Grand Prize entry "The Charm of Topology - Dr. Joan Birman: Mathematics is very beautiful" from the 2009 AWM Essay Contest.

Read Birman's profile from the AWM Emmy Noether Lectures.

Read an interview with Joan Birman from the January 2007 issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society.

See some Book Reviews and Papers in the Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society that were written by Joan Birman.


  1. Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, 26(3), May-June 1996, 5-6. [Reprinted in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Anne Case and Anne Leggett, Editors, Princeton University Press (2005), 199-201.]
  2. Profiles of Women in Mathematics: The Emmy Noether Lectures, Association for Women in Mathematics.
  3. Henrion, Claudia. Women in Mathematics: The Addition of Difference, Indiana University Press, 1997, 121-140.
  4. Joan Birman's Home Page at Columbia University
  5. Joan Birman, "In Her Own Words," AMS Notices, Vol. 38, No. 7, Sept. 1991, pp. 702-706.
  6. Lam, Wai-Ting. "The Charm of Topology: Dr. Joan Birman: Mathematics is Very Beautiful!," AWM Newsletter, Vol. 39, No. 4 (July-August 2009), 6-7.
  7. Margalit, Dan. "The Mathematics of Joan Birman," Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 66, No. 3 (March 2019), 341-353.
  8. Author Profile at zbMath
  9. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  10. Mathematics Genealogy Project

Photo Credit: Photograph used with permission of the Association for Women in Mathematics and is taken from Profiles of Women in Mathematics-The Emmy Noether Lectures, published by the AWM.