When 46-year-old Hilda Geiringer arrived in New York with her daughter Magda, she must have felt relieved. The year was 1939. And Geiringer, as well as a talented mathematician, was a Jewish woman from Vienna.
For six years, she’d been seeking an escape from the Nazi threat in Europe. In that time, she’d fled to Turkey, been stranded in Lisbon and narrowly escaped internment at a Nazi camp. Her arrival in the US should have opened a new, and far better, chapter.
But it brought other challenges.
The first woman to teach applied mathematics at a German university, Geiringer was known as an innovative thinker who applied her mathematical insight to other sciences. But in the US, she struggled for decades to regain her status in the field.
This wasn’t because of Geiringer’s talent, or lack thereof: she was part of an early vanguard in 20th-Century applied mathematics at a time when the field was trying to find institutional legitimacy and independence from pure mathematics. With crucial contributions to mathematical theories of plasticity and to probability genetics, Geiringer helped advance the field of applied mathematics, laying fundamental groundwork which many parts of science and engineering rely upon today.
But Geiringer’s work was more than her livelihood. It was her calling. “I must work scientifically,” she wrote in a 1953 letter to the president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts. “It is perhaps the deepest need in my life.”
Whether she would be allowed to fulfil that need – and under what circumstances – was, after how she would manage to flee the Nazis, one of the biggest questions of her life.