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Mathematics Pioneer Anna Henriques Dies

By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 2, 2004; Page B06

Anna Adelaide Stafford Henriques, 99, a mathematician whose confidence in her ability led her to study with world-famous scientists in 1933 at the newly formed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., died of congestive heart failure Nov. 28 at her home at the Goodwin House in Baileys Crossroads.

She had been orphaned as a child and helped raise her four younger brothers and sisters until she left for college. She double-majored in mathematics and Greek at Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, where she also studied science and language and learned to read French and German. She graduated in 1926. She earned a master's degree in summer school at the University of Chicago, while working during the school year as a high school math teacher in New Jersey.

"I've spent my life and not wasted it by trying to save it till later," Dr. Henriques said. (Family Photo)

While she was at the university in her home town of Chicago, she heard a lecture on topology -- the study of the properties of geometric figures that remain unchanged even when under distortion, so long as no surfaces are torn.

"I thought, aha -- that's what I want," she told the institute's newsletter, Attributions, in 2001. "But there was very little to find on the subject, and what little there was to find was done by a man named Oswald Veblen. . . . [Princeton University] was the only place I knew that you could study topology. So I wrote to Princeton . . . and they sent me a postcard saying, 'We don't take girls.' "

Undiscouraged, Dr. Henriques read in the newspaper that the Institute for Advanced Study was being started and that Veblen would work there. She wrote again, this time to Veblen, and announced her plans to meet him when he visited Chicago in spring. She did, and he said that if she could get her doctoral degree by August, she could come to the institute.

Her mentor, mathematician Mayme Logsdon, the only woman to hold a regular faculty position at the University of Chicago above the rank of instructor before 1982, agreed to teach Dr. Henriques topology. They learned it together, but first they had to learn Italian and have a handwritten text on topology reproduced.

On Aug. 31, 1933, Dr. Henriques wrote to inform Veblen that she had received a doctoral degree the previous week and that she would see him in Princeton. She was one of only 17 students accepted, and to earn her living during those Depression years, she taught mornings at a private high school, and studied afternoons at the institute with Albert Einstein, Kurt Godel and John von Neumann.

She told the institute's newsletter that the rigorous study was matched by the lively social life.

"There were hardly any women guests, maybe six women to twenty men -- you should go to a ball like that! A great big tall thin man asked me to dance, and we waltzed all over the room. Shamelessly. Just had the best waltz you ever had in your life. It was absolute motion. He didn't talk. During an intermission, friends asked if I knew who that was. And I said no -- I guess I'd been introduced, but all I knew was he had a lot of initials. It was a most fantastic dance -- I still have those shoes!" Her partner was P.A.M. Dirac, who had shared the 1933 Nobel Prize in physics.

After two years at the institute, she decided that she loved teaching, and took a job at the University of Nebraska. In 1937, she moved on to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. She met her husband there while singing in a church choir.

Dr. Henriques taught full time, raised a son and helped to raise two young Navajo girls whom she had met at an Episcopal mission in Bluff, Utah. She was also a Girl Scout troop leader.

When her husband was transferred to Santa Fe, she joined the math department faculty of the College of Santa Fe (then St. Joseph's College), rising to chairman and, upon her retirement in 1971, chairman emeritus.

She and her husband moved to the Washington area and became members of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Falls Church. After retirement, she and her husband traveled extensively, visiting every continent, some of them two or three times.

Dr. Henriques was fond of saying, "I've spent my life and not wasted it by trying to save it till later."

Her husband of 45 years, Douglas Henriques, died in 1987.

She then moved to Goodwin House-Baileys Crossroads in the Falls Church area. She bowled three times a week until she was 93. She continued to teach, giving talks on mathematics to other Goodwin House residents well into her nineties.

Survivors include a son, Vico Henriques of Arlington; two granddaughters; and five great-grandchildren.

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