Constance Reid, 92; wrote about mathematics, work in WWII bomber plant

Constance Reid wrote well-received books about math and mathematicians, including her sister, Julia Robinson.
Constance Reid wrote well-received books about math and mathematicians, including her sister, Julia Robinson. (Photo By George Csicsery ©2001)
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By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 23, 2010; 11:59 PM

Constance Reid, 92, who led a venturesome life of achievement, building heavy bombers during World War II and then writing popular and penetrating studies of mathematics and mathematicians, died Oct. 14 at her home in San Francisco. She had cancer.

As a worker in a California plant that built B-24 bombers, Mrs. Reid led the life of "Rosie the Riveter," the female hero of the home front who rolled up her sleeves to produce ships, planes and tanks while men were off at war. Mrs. Reid wrote about her experience in a book republished years later by the Smithsonian Institution.

In her later life, she raised a family while publishing a stream of biographies and expository works on mathematics, from the time of the ancient Greeks to the 2oth century. One particularly well-received book told the story of her sister, Julia Robinson, a pioneering American mathematician.

Mrs. Reid also wrote "From Zero to Infinity: What Makes Numbers Interesting," "Introduction to Higher Mathematics for the General Reader" and "A Long Way from Euclid," which traced developments in mathematics to the ancient figure familiar to students of high school geometry.

The opening of that book suggests the warm and inviting way in which Mrs. Reid could lure readers into topics that might easily seem cold and forbidding: "In Ancient Greece, where modern mathematics began, there was no question among mathematicians but that the gods themselves were mathematicians too."

She concluded: "It is the hope of the author that the reader of this book will be able to glimpse through his own misty memories of Euclid's geometry the outline of some of the more imposing edifices of modern mathematics."

Martin Gardner, a celebrated popularizer of mathematics, wrote that "no one today writes about mathematics and mathematicians with more grace, knowledge, skill and clarity" than Mrs. Reid.

She also tackled the lives of mathematicians and statisticians whose careers were little known to untrained outsiders: David Hilbert, Richard Courant and Jerzy Neyman.

The book about her sister, "Julia: A Life in Mathematics," is known as an autobiography, but Mrs. Reid is widely regarded as having written it, based on interviews with her sister.

Mrs. Reid was fond of quoting a question that her vexed stepmother asked about her sister: "What are we going to do with a girl like that?"

Mrs. Reid was prominently featured in a 2008 documentary about her sister's life, "Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem."

Constance Bowman was born in St. Louis on Jan. 3, 1918. After her mother died, Mrs. Reid and her sister were sent to live with a grandmother in Arizona. The family later moved to California, where both sisters graduated from San Diego State University. Mrs. Reid received a master's degree in education from the University of California at Berkeley in 1949.

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