Agnes Scott College

Louise Hay

Louise Hay

June 14, 1935 - October 28, 1989

Louise Schmir Hay was born in Metz, France, to Polish-Jewish parents. The family immigrated to New York in 1946 after spending part of World War II as refuges in Switzerland. Louise received her B.A. in mathematics from Swarthmore College in 1956 and her master's degree from Cornell University in 1959. Her master's thesis was "An Axiomatization of the Infinitely Many-Valued Predicate Calculus." She then took an instructorship at Mount Holyoke College after her husband, whom she had married after her junior year at Swarthmore, began a tenure-track position at Smith College. In 1963 Hay returned to Cornell to complete her Ph.D. in mathematics, finishing her dissertation in recursion theory in 1965 (after a brief interruption for the birth of twins.) She returned to Mount Holyoke as an assistant professor, then in 1968, after a divorce, moved to the University of Illinois at Chicago as an associate professor. In 1980 Hay was appointed as Head of the Department of Mathematics (later to become the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science), becoming at that time the only female head of a major research-oriented university mathematics department in the United States. She remained as head until her death from breast cancer in 1989, having developed a world-wide reputation for her research in mathematical logic, recursive function theory, and theoretical computer science.

Hay was a founding member of the Association for Women in Mathematics. In 1990 the AWM established the Louise Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education. The purpose of this award is to recognize outstanding achievements in any area of mathematical education. As reported by the Notices of the American Mathematical Society:

While Louise Hay was widely recognized for her contributions to mathematical logic and for her strong leadership as head of the Department of Mathematics, Statistics, and Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, her devotion to students and her lifelong commitment to nurturing the talent of young women and men secure her reputation as a consummate educator. The annual presentation of this award is intended to highlight the importance of mathematics education and to evoke the memory of all that Hay exemplified as a teacher, scholar, administrator, and human being.

The following autobiographical essay by Louise Hay is reprinted with permission from the Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, Vol 19, No. 5 (1989), 8-10.

How I Became A Mathematician (or how it was in the bad old days)

By Louise Hay, University of Illinois at Chicago

During the course of a recent conversation I mentioned a PBS program in which Bill Moyers interviewed a philosopher from UC-Berkeley, who put great emphasis on how the Western literary classics (sometimes referred to as those written by "dead white males") should be studied because they affect our lives; I commented that my life had been much more affected by The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan. (I should perhaps have added two other books: Non-Euclidean Geometry by Wolfe and Geometric Algebra by Artin.) Bhama Srinivasan also reminded me of how influenced I had been by a dinner conversation with the late Hannah Neumann. Since the AWM Newsletter publishes articles on famous women mathematicians both past and present, perhaps it would be instructive, especially for our younger members, to read what it took for a minor mathematician to escape the spell of the fifties and, through a combination of luck and inspiration, to find a satisfying niche in the mathematical world.

Until high school, I was not particularly mathematically inclined--indeed, I was much better at verbal subjects; combinatorial aspects of numbers and equations have never been my strong point (it is not always recognized that mathematical aptitude comes in many different flavors). I was fortunate in 10th grade, however, to take a geometry class taught by a man called David Rosenbaum who believed in teaching the logic of the subject rather than just following the theorem-proof format of the text (which of course was straight out of Euclid). He wrote up and distributed notes on logical reasoning, fallacies, etc., and expected the students to understand what they were doing when they wrote up a proof. (I heard a few years later that the reward for his efforts was to be given a solid load of remedial courses. He was a bitter man, presumably based on his experiences in the thirties--when I visited him from graduate school, he told me I would never get anywhere professionally because I was a woman and a Jew; unfortunately, I never got a chance to show him that things had changed.) I found the logical aspects of mathematics much more congenial than the numerical aspects, and when I showed aptitude for this, Mr. Rosenbaum suggested I read up on non-Euclidean geometry, to put the subject in a new perspective. He also arranged tutoring opportunities for me, making all financial arrangements with the parents involved, which was extremely helpful since my family's financial position was very precarious. He had me get Wolfe's book on non-Euclidean geometry, which I found fascinating and which ultimately was the basis of the project I wrote as a senior for the Westinghouse Science Talent Search, in which I won third prize. This was no doubt instrumental in my getting a large enough scholarship to enable me to attend Swarthmore College, where I majored in mathematics, a decision which I had taken as a result of my geometry class and never reconsidered. The Westinghouse award also led to summer jobs at the National Bureau of Standards, where I learned to program the SEAC (in 1952!) which in turn led to a part-time job at the Moore School of Electrical Engineering which helped support me through college, and to later jobs in industry.

As one did in those days, I got married at the end of junior year, though still with the intention of going to graduate school in mathematical logic. It was not easy to find universities with strong programs both in visual perception (for my experimental psychologist husband) and in mathematical logic (those could be counted on the fingers of one hand--logic was not exactly considered mathematically respectable in most mathematics departments). We settled on Cornell, where we both received teaching assistantships. My husband went there in the fall of my senior year, while I remained at Swarthmore, an unusual arrangement in those days (his landlady caused some trouble about my visiting him since she did not believe we were married). I then came up to Ithaca for the Spring and worked at General Electric; upon obtaining my degree in June, I went to see the Personnel Manager to see about getting my position upgraded. He agreed and told me the salary scale, only to retract it in an embarrassed fashion because it applied only to males! Of course there was no recourse in those days. I spent two years at Cornell, at which point my husband, who had entered with his Master's degree and now had all the data for his Ph.D. dissertation, decided to take a teaching job (a visiting job at Oberlin--the job market was very tight). Like a good fifties wife, I followed him, first doing a Master's thesis to have something to show for my two years. (I must admit I was glad to leave--I lacked confidence that I could finish a Ph.D. at that point.) My thesis advisor, J. Barkley Rosser, was extremely helpful, both in getting a visiting job for me at Oberlin (here the "old-boy network" worked in my favor), and in leaving me with detailed instructions for proving a theorem in infinite-valued logic which would constitute a thesis, while he took off for a summer vacation trip around the world with his family. As it happened, I found a counterexample to the main lemma, which made the thesis publishable under my own name.

The year at Oberlin was followed by a year working for Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory in Buffalo (which laid me off in the spring the instant my husband gave them notice that he was returning to academia in the fall--so much for independent professional identities; fortunately I was immediately hired by a fly-by-night operation that had split off from Bell Aircraft); then a year teaching part-time at a junior college, and three years as an instructor at Mount Holyoke College while my husband was on the tenure track at Smith College. By then, Sputnik had changed the conditions of academic mathematics in the U.S.--there was great student demand, a shortage of Ph.D.'s and therefore jobs for non-Ph.D.'s like myself, though without a real future. By the end of that time, I had built up much more confidence (there is nothing like teaching course you've never taken to build up confidence in your ability to do mathematics), but there was no convenient opportunity to return to graduate school, since the nearest Ph.D. granting department was at the University of Massachusetts, where logic was not represented.

At this time I became pregnant with my first child, a welcome event after several years of apparent infertility. I had recently taught a course in projective geometry, and had gotten hold of Artin's book Geometric Algebra in which I read the first chapter on coordinatization, which I found incredibly beautiful and which really turned me on to mathematics again. By good fortune my husband was collaborating on research with a friend at the University of Minnesota, and they decided to spend the summer together at Cornell, which gave me a chance to attend some seminars and get somewhat back into the mathematical swing. (As I recall, Higman had just proved the undecidability of the word problem for groups, and we read papers by Hannah and Bernhard Neumann on amalgamation of groups which were relevant). I then returned to teaching that fall, having resigned my job effective the second semester due to my expected baby. This is what you did in those days: I never even considered any alternative arrangement.

But several things happened to change my life during that spring of 1963. Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique was published; when I read it, I questioned for the first time the rationale of giving first priority to being a wife and mother, and sacrificing a career for myself for the sake of my husband's. The second thing that happened was that Hannah Neumann gave a Colloquium at Mount Holyoke to which I was invited, and I happened to sit next to her at the Colloquium dinner. I must have mentioned my new baby, and she proceeded to tell me some of her history: how she had interrupted her studies to have two children, but then having been evacuated during the war (as an "enemy alien") from the coast of England to Cambridge while her husband joined the British Army, she returned to school, using other students as sitters while she was her adviser, and finished her Ph.D. By 1963, she had raised five children and become a renowned algebraist. The message that came across to me was that if she could finish a Ph.D. with two children, surely I could do so with one. (A relevant factor in this situation was that my first child was an exceptionally easy and good-natured infant, who did not require constant attention, so that I was somewhat bored staying at home.) Anyway, we went back to Cornell that summer for my husband's research. I had signed up to teach part-time the following year at Smith College, but halfway through the summer I decided to take the plunge and remain at Cornell for the following academic year to try to finish at least the course and exam requirements for the Ph.D.--it was not clear what I would do regarding a dissertation yet. Those were the halcyon days of post-Sputnik funding; lots of ONR grant funding so that I was able to walk in halfway through the summer and be given a research assistantship for the following year. (Chairman Bob Walker kindly said: "I'm sure Professor Rosser [who had left Cornell by then for Wisconsin] would want you to be supported on the grant.") So I called Smith College to resign my part-time job, found an apartment where I and my son would live while my husband returned to Smith, and proceeded to come down with terrific attacks of anxiety and insomnia when I realized what I had committed myself to. (A brief talk with a therapist and judicious use of tranquilizers helped solve that problem.)

As it turned out, I had a wonderful and productive year. I took 3 courses, passed my prelims, and under the inspiring tutelage of Anil Nerode, did all the work for a dissertation in recursion theory. (I still remember how I proved my first theorem; it was the weekend Kennedy was assassinated--my husband, who visited me about once a month, canceled his visit that weekend, and I spent the time working instead.) By the end of the year (including both summers) I had all the requirements for the degree except for the final writing up and the thesis defense, and I was pregnant again. The thesis defense was somewhat delayed because it turned out to be twins who were born prematurely, but by the end of the following year I had my degree. I stayed home that year, but with a half-time housekeeper which enabled me to spend some time each day reading mathematics. Where part of my earlier motivation for returning to work with one child was that I didn't have enough to do, I now had the motivation of having much too much to do at home (3 children under the age of 3!). It meant devoting a good part of my salary to child care; finding good and reliable child care was an incredible hassle, and I gather it is still a problem. I was not one of the lucky people who found a housekeeper who stayed around 5 or 10 years. Instead, we must have gone through at least 15 sitters, everything from a 14-year-old girl to an 85-year-old Italian grandmother and live-in South American and English helpers. One of the hard things to cope with at that time was the climate of social disapproval for working mothers: "you mean you're willing to let someone else raise your children? think how awful you'll feel if one of them has an accident while you're not there"; etc., etc.

With my Ph.D. as a union card, I was rehired at Mount Holyoke on the tenure track and was an Assistant Professor for 3 years, one of which I spent on an NSF Postdoctoral Fellowship (they were more numerous in those days) at M.I.T. (I would have preferred a job at U. Mass, because of the graduate program, but I made the mistake of applying for one, which was the "kiss of death"; these were the days before affirmative action, and most hiring was done through the "old-boy network" via your adviser). As it happened, the following year my marriage broke up, and it really made a difference that I had my Ph.D. I could for the first time go on the job market on my own account (and in 1968 the job market was very good); I still shudder to think of what my situation would have been like had I not finished my degree. I joined the University of Illinois at Chicago (formerly Circle) at an excellent salary as an Associate Professor (thereby avoiding the agonies of waiting for tenure). I remarried, with a very supportive colleague who helped make it possible for me to continue to prove theorems, none of which is very earthshaking, but each of which conveyed to me the peculiar thrill of briefly knowing a sliver of mathematical truth that nobody else knows. And I saw the climate towards women change. Professional women with children no longer have to justify pursuing a careers--if anything, it's the other way around. Significantly, when I became Department Head in 1979, the subject of my sex never became an issue, as far as I am aware. (Unfortunately this may be less true on the national scene--at the annual National Chairmen's Colloquium there are might few women to be seen, and tenured women mathematicians seem to be concentrated at relatively few institutions). But women are no longer automatically expected to follow faithfully in the steps of their spouse, and men even share in child-care without calling it "babysitting." It may be instructive to the young women of today to know it wasn't always like that. If there is a moral to this tale of how I became a mathematician, it is that sources of inspiration and opportunities to change your life can come unexpectedly and should not be ignored; and that you should not neglect the dictates of your own career, taking some risks if necessary, since you never know what the future will bring.

As a postscript, I can't resist mentioning what became of my boys, in whom I must admit I take greater pride than in my theorems (unreasonably so, since I strongly believe in the effects of innate temperament over environment, so I don't feel I deserve much of the credit). My eldest son, the "good-natured infant," graduated last year at the top of his Harvard Law School class, is about to start a Supreme Court Clerkship, and just married a Law School classmate who has every intention of pursuing her own career. The twins are pursing doctoral programs in business with a heavy mathematical emphasis, one at Northwestern and one at M.I.T. So they seem to have survived the 15 babysitters and other turmoil in my life with reasonable success!


  1. Hay, Louise. "How I became a mathematician," Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, 19(5), 1989, 8-10.
  2. Soare, Robert I. "Louise Hay: 1935-1989," Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, 20(1), 1990, 3-4.
  3. Hughes, Rhonda. "Fond Remembrances of Louise Hay," Newsletter of the Association for Women in Mathematics, 20(1), 1990, 4-6.
  4. Baldwin, John. "Louise Hay," Notices of the American Mathematical Society, 1989.
  5. "Hay Award for Contributions to Mathematics Education," Notices of the American Mathematical Society, May 1995, 563.
  6. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  7. Author Profile at zbMath
  8. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  9. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive