Hilda Geiringer’s life epitomizes both the successes and frustrations of women in academia in the early twentieth century. A pioneering applied mathematician, she was the first woman to receive an academic appointment in mathematics at the University of Berlin. Despite her distinguished publications, after immigrating to the United States, she could find jobs only at women’s colleges.
The second of four children and the only daughter, Hilda Geiringer was born in Vienna on September 28, 1893, to a middle-class Jewish family. Her mother, Martha Wertheimer Geiringer, was from Vienna; her father, Ludwig Geiringer, was a textile manufacturer from Slovakia. A brilliant student with a prodigious memory, she studied mathematics and physics at the University of Vienna from 1913 to 1917 and wrote a groundbreaking doctoral dissertation on double trigonometric (Fourier) series.
In 1921, after teaching adult education and working as an associate editor for a mathematics journal, Geiringer received a research position as the assistant to Richard von Mises, the director of the Institute of Applied Mathematics in Berlin. Von Mises, a Catholic of Jewish origin, became her mentor, collaborator, and eventually her second husband. Also in 1921, Geiringer married another Jewish mathematician from Vienna, Felix Pollaczek, and in 1922 gave birth to a daughter, Magda. After the couple separated in 1925, Geiringer raised her daughter alone. The divorce was not finalized until 1932.
In 1927, Geiringer became a privatdocent in applied mathematics at the University of Berlin and continued to conduct research on probability and the mathematical theory of plasticity. In 1933, instead of an anticipated promotion to untenured associate professor (Extraordinarius), a rank attained by very few women in Germany, she was dismissed from her job as a result of Nazi anti-Jewish legislation. She left Germany with her daughter and, after spending a year as a research associate at the Institute of Mechanics in Brussels, became professor of mathematics at the University of Istanbul in 1934. Together with von Mises, she remained in Turkey for five years, lecturing first in French and then in Turkish.
In 1939, Geiringer was offered a temporary position as a lecturer at Bryn Mawr College, which enabled her to immigrate to the United States with her daughter on a nonquota visa. During World War II, she did classified research for the National Defense Research Council. In 1944, she married von Mises, who was a professor at Harvard, and received an appointment as professor of mathematics and department chair at Wheaton, a women’s college in Norton, Massachusetts, a position she held until her retirement in 1959.
Hilda Geiringer became an American citizen in 1945 and no longer identified herself as a Jew but as a Unitarian. Although she was a dedicated teacher, a prolific researcher, and a Protestant, as a woman already in her fifties, Geiringer found it impossible to obtain an academic appointment in Boston and thus could not live together with her husband except on weekends and vacations. After von Mises’s death in 1953, she completed and edited his unpublished works on probability and statistics while continuing to do research in this field herself.
Hilda Geiringer died of pneumonia on March 22, 1973, while on a visit to California.
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Freidenreich, Harriet. "Hilda Geiringer." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 3, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/geiringer-hilda>.