Agnes Scott College

Dusa McDuff

Dusa McDuff

October 18, 1945 -


Written by Lauren Love, Class of 1999 (Agnes Scott College)

Don't tell Dusa McDuff that girls can't "do" math -- the 1991 winner of the Ruth Lyttle Satter prize and Honorary Foreign Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences knew at quite an early age that she would one day be a mathematician. The problem for Professor McDuff was never what to become, but how to become it: "My life as a young mathematician was much harder than it needed to be because I was so isolated. I had no role models, and my first attempts at inventing a lifestyle were not very successful" (NAMS [3], 186).

Margaret Dusa McDuff was born in London on October 18, 1945. She grew up in Scotland where her father was a professor who taught genetics and wrote books about such diverse topics as art and philosophy. Unlike the mothers of her friends, Dusa's mother worked also, as an architect, and perhaps it was through her that Dusa got a first glimpse at the difficulties of being a professional woman: her mother worked with the civil service in Edinburgh because as a female no other jobs in such a non-traditional field were open to her. But the fact that Dusa's mother was an architect in a time when most women did not work outside the home seems less peculiar in light of the phenomenal women from whom she (and Dusa) descends. Dusa's maternal grandmother was an author and political activist, and her great-grandmother wrote a book in 1911 that is used as a text in colleges even today!

Despite this impressive family history, Dusa grew up in an atmosphere in which "males were seen to be more truly creative than females" (NAMS [3], 186). She attended a school for girls, and here she began to explore the world of mathematics. Looking back, Dusa wishes she had understood how important her decisions concerning her education would become and that she had anticipated the difficulties of balancing work and womanhood. But as a teen, Dusa did not worry about these things. She cooked, and cleaned, for her boyfriend, and entered the University of Edinburgh as opposed to accepting a scholarship at Cambridge and leaving him behind. In 1967, she earned her bachelors degree in math and entered graduate school at Cambridge, with husband in tow. During this time, Dusa solved a problem about von Neumann algebras, which she says was her "best work" for quite awhile.

After she finished her doctorate, Dusa spent several years unsure of her position as a mathematician. She followed her husband to Russia, where they stayed for six months. After returning to Cambridge, Dusa had a baby. This was a time during which Dusa struggled most to find her voice in mathematics: "I was very isolated, with no one to talk to....After my post-doc, I got a job at York University. I was the family breadwinner and the housekeeper and the diaper changer" (NAMS [3], 186). She began working at York University in 1973 as a lecturer and stayed there until 1976, when she spent two years lecturing at University of Warwick (1976 - 1978). But during that time, Dusa's career took a major turn.

Why the changes? In 1974, Dusa was invited to spend a year on the faculty at M.I.T. One position was open for a visiting professor and the space had been reserved specifically for a woman. During that year (1974 - 1975), a whole new world opened up to Dusa, showing her what a woman, what she, was capable of doing as a mathematician. She remembers: "While there I realized how far away I was from being the mathematician I felt that I could be, but also realized I could do something about it. For the first time, I met some other women whom I could relate to and who were also trying to become mathematicians. I became less passive: I applied to the Institute for Advanced Study and got in and even had a mathematical idea again" (NAMS [3], 186).

After spending a year at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton from 1976 - 1977, Dusa returned to England where she and her husband were divorced, at which time she set out to discover who she would become as a mathematician. Dusa worked alone. She studied groups of diffeomorphisms and foliations. In 1978, Dr. McDuff accepted a position as an assistant professor of mathematics at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, and between 1978 and 1984, she worked her way from assistant to associate professor. While finding herself as a mathematician and working as a professor, Dusa remarried and had another child. Somewhere in there, she managed to achieve an equilibrium of being a mother, a wife, a teacher, and a scholar. Since 1984, she has been a professor at SUNY at Stony Brook. [Update Nov. 2012: McDuff was appointed Distinguished Professor of Mathematics at Stony Brook in 1998. She retired from SUNY in 2008 and since 2007 has held the Helen Lyttle Kimmel '42 Chair in Mathematics at Barnard College.] Dusa has continued her research, and in recent years she has worked with global symplectic topology. From 1991 until 1993, Dusa served as the chair in the math department of the University. She has also been very involved in the WISE program (Women in Science and Engineering) at Stony Brook. WISE is funded in part by the National Science Foundation, and it is designed to provide support for female freshman who intend to follow a career path of science, mathematics, or engineering.

In 1994, Dusa was elected to the Royal Society of London, an organization chartered in 1662 by King Charles II of England. Of forty new fellows, Dr. McDuff was the only woman, and of the Royal Society's 1,124 members who are scientists (including mathematicians), two are female mathematicians. Only 3% of all the scientists in the Royal Society are female.

To an outsider it certainly appears that Dusa has found herself -- as a mathematician and as a person. She is a member of the American Mathematical Society and is on the editorial board of Notices of the American Mathematical Society, a publication of the AMS. She is also a member of the Association of Women Scientists, one of the many organizations that now help to provide the support for professional women who work in the fields of science and mathematics that Dusa (and many others) lacked when she started out. When she accepted the first Ruth Lyttle Satter prize for mathematics achievement in 1991, Dusa said: "One important way of combating such isolation is to make both the achievements of woman mathematicians and the different ways in which we live more visible." Dusa McDuff has made a good start at that.

Read Dusa McDuff's own autobiographical essay.

References

  1. "Dusa McDuff." American Men and Women of Science. Volume 5; 1989-90 ed.: 55.
  2. "Notable: Dusa McDuff." University Week (SUNY at Stony Brook). Ed. by Dan Forbush. April 1994.
  3. "1991 Ruth Lyttle Satter Prize in Mathematics Awarded in San Francisco." Notices of the American Mathematical Society. Volume 38, Number 3. March 1991: 185-187.
  4. Jackson, Allyn. "American Academy Elections." Notices of the American Mathematical Society. August 1995.
  5. Kenschaft, Patricia Clark. "Dusa Waddington McDuff," in Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary, Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl, Editors, Greenwood Press (1998), 137-142. [available at the Patricia Kenschaft Library]
  6. Dusa McDuff: Biographical Sketch, SUNY at Stony Brook
  7. Profile from the Emmy Noether Lectures
  8. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  9. Author Profile at zbMath
  10. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  11. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archives