Agnes Scott College

Cathleen Morawetz

Cathleen Morawetz

May 5, 1923 - August 8, 2017

Written by Tyler Knowles, Class of 2000 (Agnes Scott College)

Cathleen Morawetz was born on May 5, 1923, in Toronto, Canada. Her Irish parents were John Synge, a mathematician, and Eleanor Mabel Synge. Cathleen obtained her Bachelor of Arts degree in Mathematics in 1943 at the University of Toronto, where she studied with Cecilia Krieger. The following year she worked as a technical assistant for inspection of the Board of the United Kingdom and Canada. She received her master's degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1946. Cathleen then moved to New York where she edited a book called Supersonic Flow and Shock Waves by Richard Courant and Kurt Friedrichs of New York University. On the completion of the book, she began working on imploding shock waves for her Ph.D. In 1950, while researching her thesis, Cathleen became a naturalized U.S. citizen. She earned her Ph.D. at New York University in 1951, writing a thesis entitled "Contracting Spherical Shocks Treated by a Perturbation Method."

Cathleen then became a research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for a year but returned to NYU in 1952. Since then she has spent her entire career there. She was a research associate for five years, then became an assistant professor in 1957, associate professor in 1960, and professor in 1965. She was appointed associate director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in 1978 and deputy director in 1981. She has served as director of the National Cash Register Corporation since 1978 and as chair of the mathematics department of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences from 1981- 1984. Cathleen became the first woman in the United States to head a mathematical institute when she was named director of the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences in 1984. She is now Professor Emeritus at New York University-Courant Institute.

During her career, Cathleen has been active in mathematical society and has received many honors. She is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a member of the Advisory Committee for the Mathematical Sciences for the National Science Foundation and the Mathematical Advisory Committee to the National Bureau of Standards. She is also the first woman to belong to the Applied Mathematics Section of the National Academy of Sciences. Cathleen has been a trustee for the American Mathematical Society, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and Princeton University. She was a Guggenheim Fellow in 1966 and again in 1978. In 1980 she received the Lester R. Ford Award of the Mathematical Association of America for her expository writing in mathematics. In 1981, she became the first woman to deliver the Gibbs Lecture of the American Mathematical Society. She presented an Invited Address at a meeting of the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics in 1982. She also received the 1997 Krieger-Nelson Award given by the Canadian Mathematical Society to recognize outstanding research by a female mathematician.

Cathleen has received honorary degrees from Eastern Michigan University in 1980, Brown University and Smith College in 1982, and Princeton in 1990. In 1993 she was named Outstanding Woman Scientist by the Association for Women in Science. In 1995 Cathleen became only the second woman to be elected as President of the American Mathematical Society in the Society's 105-year history.

Despite her busy career, Cathleen also found time to have a large family. She married Herbert Morawetz, a chemist, on October 28, 1945. They had four children: Pegeen Ann, John Synge, Lida Joan, and Nancy Babette. Now a grandmother, Cathleen is a perfect example of a woman that has followed her dreams, reached her goals, and still had plenty of time for her family. She was even recognized by the National Organization for Women for combining a successful career and a family. She has been an inspiration to many women who thought it was impossible to have both a family and career.

June 1997


In December 1998, President William Clinton presented Cathleen Morawetz with a National Medal of Science, the nation's highest science honor. She was the first woman to receive the medal for work in mathematics. Morawetz was cited for "pioneering advances in partial differential equations and wave propagation resulting in application to aerodynamics, acoustics, and optics."

Cathleen Morawetz received the Lifetime Achievement award from the American Mathematical Society at the 2004 Annual Meeting of the American Mathematical Society in Phoeniz, Arizona. This award, part of the Steele Prizes established in 1970, recognized "the cumulative influence of the total mathematical work of the recipient, high level of research over a period of time, particular influence on the development of a field, and influence on mathematics through Ph.D. students." For more information, see the citation in the April 2004 issue of the Notices of the AMS, pages 424-425.

Morawetz received the 2006 George David Birkhoff Prize in Applied Mathematics for "her deep and influential work in partial differential equations, most notably in the study of shock waves, transonic flow, scattering theory, and conformally invariant estimates for the wave equation." For more information, see the citation in the April 2006 issue of the Notices of the AMS, page 474.

Cathleen Morawetz gave the Emmy Noether Lecture at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Berlin in 1998. You can watch her lecture on "Variations on Conservation Laws for the Wave Equation" at


  1. "The Mathematics of Cathleen Synge Morawetz," communicated by Christina Sormani, Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 65, No. 7 (August 2018), 764-778.
  2. Chang, Kenneth. Obituary, New York Times, August 11, 2017.
  3. "Cathleen S. Morawetz elected AMS President", Association for Women in Mathematics Newsletter, January-February 1994, vol 24, no 1, p6.
  4. Cathleen Morawetz, in Profiles of Women in Mathematics: The Emmy Noether Lectures. Association of Women in Mathematics, 1983.
  5. Krieger-Nelson Prize Announcement,
  6. 1999 profile in USA Today (no longer available online)
  7. Patterson, James D. "Cathleen Synge Morawetz," in Women of Mathematics: A Bibliographic Sourcebook, Grinstein, L. and P. Campbell, Editors, Greenwood Press, pp. 152-155.
  8. Perl, Teri. "Cathleen Synge Morawetz," in Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl, Editors, Greenwood Press (1998), 147-152.
  9. "Morawetz Receives National Science Medal," SIAM News, 1999.
  10. Jackson, Allyn. "Cathleen Morawetz Receives National Medal of Science," Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 46, No. 3 (March 1999), 352.
  11. Jackson, Allyn. "Happy 91st, Cathleen Synge Morawetz," Notices of the American Mathematical Society, Vol. 61, No. 5 (May 2014), 510.
  12. Morawetz, Cathleen Synge. "Problems, Including Mathematical Problems, from My Early Years," from the Olga Taussky Todd Celebration of Careers for Women In Mathematics, reprinted in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, Bettye Anne Case and Anne Leggett, Editors, Princeton University Press (2005), 267-272.
  13. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  14. Author Profile at zbMath
  15. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  16. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

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.