Olga Taussky-Todd

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Olga Taussky-Todd


Austrian-American Mathematician

The two principal areas of interest to Olga Taussky-Todd, in a long and varied career, were number theory and matrix theory. The former is the study of integers and their relationships; the latter concerns the study of sets of elements in a rectangular array, which are subject to operations such as addition or multiplication according to specified rules. Like Emmy Noether (1882-1935), whom she knew, Taussky-Todd was a Jewish woman attempting to gain acceptance in the early twentieth-century world of German mathematics; yet her story was a much happier one than Noether's. Not only was Noether 24 years older than she, and thus practically of a different generation with fewer opportunities for women, but Taussky-Todd quickly left the world of Germany and Austria behind when the Nazis took power.

The second of Julius and Ida Pollach Taussky's three daughters was born on August 30, 1906, in Olmötz, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Olomouc, Czech Republic). Her father was an industrial chemist and journalist who encouraged his daughters to use their minds, and later when he went to work as manager of a vinegar factory in Vienna, he used Olga's help in calculating water-to-vinegar ratios for various mixtures. During World War I, the family moved again, this time to Linz, and while Taussky-Todd was still in high school, her father died.

She worked for a time to help support the family, then entered the University of Vienna, where she received her Ph.D. in mathematics in 1930. Afterward she worked briefly at the University of Göttingen, but she quickly sensed that Germany was becoming an increasingly unpleasant place for someone of Jewish ancestry.

Therefore Taussky-Todd left Central Europe behind for good, taking a three-year science fellowship with Girton College at Cambridge University in England. The first year was spent at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, where she worked with Noether. After completing her two years at Girton, she took a teaching position at one of the women's colleges at the University of London. There she met British mathematician Jack Todd (1908-1994), whom she married in 1938.

During World War II, the couple moved frequently. In 1943, Taussky-Todd took a research position with the Ministry of Aircraft Production, studying problems of flutter and stability in combat aircraft. These investigations directly related to matrix theory, an area of primary interest to Taussky-Todd. After the war, both she and her husband took positions with the National Bureau of Standards in California.

The couple had already been living in California for a decade when in 1957 they made their last major career move, both accepting professorships at the California Institute of Technology. In the years that followed, Taussky-Todd received a number of awards: in 1964, for instance, she was named Los Angeles Times "Woman of the Year," and in 1970 she received the Ford Prize for an article on the sums of squares. She retired in 1977, and died on October 7, 1995, at her home in Pasadena, California.