Agnes Scott College

Gloria Olive

Gloria Olive

June 8, 1923 - April 17, 2006

The following obituary appeared in the August 2006 Newsletter of the New Zealand Mathematical Society, pages 22-24, and is reprinted with permission of the author, Peter Fenton, and the NZMS.

Gloria Olive died at Redroofs, a nursing home in Dunedin [New Zealand], on 17 April 2006. She had been ill for several months. Towards the end of her life, Gloria relied on a thick magnifying glass to read, but eventually even that proved ineffective, and when she was no longer able to walk she consciously allowed herself to die. There was a death notice in the Otago Daily Times but, at Gloria's request, no funeral. She left her body to medical science.

At the Colloquium in Dunedin in 2004, Gloria gave a talk entitled Looking Backward and Forward (Some personal and mathematical disclosures). It was in two parts, the first an autobiographical summary, which reiterated, with anecdotal colour, much of the detail she gave Saunders Mac Lane and John Rayner for their Centrefold article (NZMS Newsletter 45) on the occasion of her retirement in February 1989. The second part summarised her work on generalized powers, which goes back to her PhD thesis. With typical polish, the non-technical side of her talk was word perfect and carefully enunciated, though she was frail and found it tiring to speak. It was also provocative — there were clearly some matters she wanted to get off her chest — and entertaining. Regrettably there was little time left for what she wanted to say about generalized powers. This was her last formal connection with the mathematical community in which she occupied such a distinctive and conspicuous position.

Gloria Rita Olive was born in New York City on 8 June 1923. Her father, Lazaur (1876-1956), was a lawyer, businessman and amateur mathematician, remembered by Gloria in the dedication to her thesis for his example of independence. The thesis was also dedicated to the "memory of my Mother [Florence] (1889-1960), who gave so much and expected nothing in return." In 1930 the family moved to Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. Gloria described herself as being at this time more of a ball-player than a mathematician1. In 1938 she was the Manhattan Beach Women's Table Tennis Champion, and pitched for the Manhattan Beach Women's Softball Team at Madison Square Garden.

Gloria entered Brooklyn College in 1940, intending to major in Physical Education, but on discovering that for this she would need to take courses in biological sciences, she switched to mathematics. She graduated BA in 1944 and became a Graduate Assistant at the University of Wisconsin. Gloria recalled her arrival at Madison:

It was a Monday and I asked the secretary if I could make an appointment to see Professor Langer [the Department Chairman] that afternoon. She replied, Professor Langer is never here in the afternoon. So, I asked, How about tomorrow morning? and she said Professor Langer is never here on Tuesday. I was glad to be able to see Professor Langer on Wednesday morning. When I arrived, he was most gracious and asked about my trip to Madison [...] He then asked if I had found a place to live. When I told him I had, he said he would like to have my address and so, he called out to his secretary (in his Harvard accent): "Ms Meyer, Ms Meyer." When there was no response, he called out to his other secretary: "Ms Smith, Ms Smith." When she also failed to respond, I said, "I guess you'll have to write it down yourself."2

Gloria received her MA from Wisconsin in 1946. Following appointments at Arizona and Idaho State, she accepted a Graduate Assistantship at Oregon State in 1950. Her PhD thesis, entitled Generalized Powers, was awarded in 1963.

Gloria was Chair of the Mathematics Department at Anderson College (now Anderson University), Indiana, 1952-68, remembered by the present Chair as a gifted mathematician, inspiring teacher and a treasured friend, and Professor at Wisconsin State University, Superior, 1968-71. Her book, Mathematics for Liberal Arts Students (1973) [Preface], was written during this period. She was appointed Senior Lecturer at Otago in 1972, a position she held until her retirement. Gloria was a foundation member of the New Zealand Mathematical Society and served on the Council. She was an organizer of the 1975 Colloquium that gave birth to the Colloquium bell — "I can recall that Colloquium Dinner in which Professor Gordon Petersen bellowed DINNER IS SERVED (to start it off) and GO HOME (to encourage us to leave)"3 and attended most others. She will be remembered by many of us as one of the Colloquium's identities. She greatly enjoyed mixing with mathematicians, and when Saunders Mac Lane visited Otago as a William Evans Fellow in the late 1980s, Gloria was with him constantly; she described herself as his Appointments Secretary.

Gloria's published mathematics had its origins in her PhD thesis, the results of which appeared in the American Mathematical Monthly [72 (1965), 619-27 (Abstract)]. A sequence of papers in the Journal of Mathematical Analysis and Applications saw the further development of generalized powers [74 (1980), 270-85, (with Raymond Scurr and Robert Aldred) 192 (1995), 439-59], the introduction of the b-transform [60 (1977), 755-78] and work on binomial functions [70 (1979), 460-73, (with Donal Krouse) 83 (1981), 110-26] and Catalan numbers [111 (1985), 201-35]. Other papers in the sequence can be found on MathSciNet. Her last paper (with Raymond Scurr) was on Stirling numbers [Discrete Math. 189 (1998), 209-19].

Gloria once reflected that being a woman in a male-dominated profession has its advantages and disadvantages4. Whatever the advantages, the disadvantages were etched in her memory. "Since coming to Otago University, my life has changed in many ways. If anyone told me what I could tell them, I would be sure they were paranoid."5 Gloria gave an example of what she meant at her Colloquium talk, probably best not committed to print. From this distance, however, it is not difficult to reconstruct episodes that Gloria might have accepted as adequate substitutes.

Gloria was a senior colleague, and of course a woman, in a department largely made up of youngish males with new PhDs, kindly enough but sure of ourselves and quick to judge. Her view that teaching should be student-centered fell on deaf ears. Her exam results were consistently higher than others, and examiners meetings took a familiar form, Gloria putting her arguments against scaling, with a freshness as though she were making them for the first time, and with so much energy that for much of the meeting she was standing, and frequently gesturing, at her seat, the rest of us putting, with stony patience (if only in our minds), the counter-arguments. Invariably the rest of us prevailed. But she never gave up. On the wall of her living room hung a picture of Abraham Lincoln, with a quotation one presumes she identified with: Let us have faith that right makes might; and in that faith let us to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.

My own relationship with Gloria was instantly turbulent. We shared the first-year calculus course, Gloria taking the afternoon stream and I the morning stream. This required regular meetings in her office to ensure that we were synchronized. She found me inflexible and wrong-headed. I found her prescriptive and condescending. Over time we forgave each other, though nothing was said, and a warmth, even affection, developed between us.

"Some [experiences] have caused frustrations," Gloria wrote,

which in turn, have motivated me to become involved in various activities — away from the Mathematics Department. For example, I was motivated to go on long bike rides —and swim in the sea every month of the year. I also became involved in the Sivananda Yoga Centre. In 1975 I attended a Yoga Retreat led by Swami Vishnudevananda. He spoke about vegetarianism — and I have been a vegetarian ever since. I also became interested in: alternative health practices, the Dr Bernard Jensen Health Club, Spiritualism, the Theosophical Society, Rudolph Steiner Education, and Hare Krishna.6

Gloria's bookshelves in her house on Forth St revealed her interest in alternative theories to almost everything. An instinctive sympathy for alternative explanations may have been a fundamental part of her personality. Gloria was unmistakable on her bike, perched high and always in a big gear, so that she seemed to be forever toiling at the pedals. She was once given a ticket for dangerous cycling and thereafter adopted a theatrical deliberation in her hand-signalling. She kept a bike at a bike shop in Christchurch to use whenever she was in town.

Garth Craib, an old friend of Gloria, said that her house had been crammed with papers: on shelves, desks, even parts of the floor. She liked the clutter and knew where everything was. Her front room, which she referred to as The Cave because of the wallpapers stonework pattern, was packed from floor to ceiling. She lived for her mathematics, he said.

  1. Letter to Diane Farquhar, 20 July 1987
  2. Looking Backward and Forward, 2004
  3. Ibid
  4. Letter to Diane Farquhar, 20 July 1987
  5. Looking Backward and Forward, 2004
  6. Ibid


  1. Mac Lane, Saunders and John Rayner. "Dr. Gloria Olive", NZMS Newsletter, April 1989 (on the occasion of her retirement from Otago)
  2. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  3. Author Profile at zbMath
  4. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive
Photo Credit: New Zealand Mathematical Society.