Neumann, Hanna (1914–1971)

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Neumann, Hanna (1914–1971)

German mathematician and educator. Name variations: Hanna von Caemmerer. Born Hanna von Caemmerer on February 12, 1914, in Berlin, Germany; died on November 14, 1971, in Canada; daughter of Hermann Conrad von Caemmerer (a historian and archivist) and Katharina von Caemmerer; graduated from the University of Berlin, c. 1936; Oxford University, Ph.D., 1944, D.Sci., 1955; married Bernhard Neumann, in 1938; children: Irene (b. 1939); Peter; Barbara (b. 1943); Walter (b. 1946); Daniel (b. 1951).

Born in Berlin in 1914, Hanna Neumann was the youngest of three children of Hermann von Caemmerer, a historian who came from a family of Prussian officers, and Katharina von Caemmerer , a descendant of French Huguenots who had moved to Prussia to escape persecution during the latter half of the 18th century. Hermann von Caemmerer was killed early in World War I, and the family was forced to live on his sparse war pension. As the children grew up, they both attended school and worked to help support the family; when Neumann was 13, she tutored younger children. She gave up her hobby of growing plants when she discovered the world of mathematics, and as a young student showed a talent both for mathematics and for the natural sciences. Neumann studied for two years at a private school and then at the Augusta-Victoria-Schule, a grammar school for girls, where she formed a lasting friendship with one of her teachers, Fraulein Otto.

In 1932, Neumann entered the University of Berlin. She concentrated on mathematics and physics, but had eclectic interests and followed the German tradition of attending lectures on a wide variety of subjects; among these were lectures given by Wilhelm Köhler, a founder of Gestalt therapy, and ones on Dante by Roman Guardini, a Roman Catholic theologian. She was greatly impressed by several of her math professors, including Ludwig Bieberbach, who motivated her to study geometry, and particularly Erhard Schmidt and Issai Schur, who introduced her to the farther reaches of algebra and analysis. Most of her new friends at the university were mathematicians, including Bernhard Neumann, whom she would later marry. Her first year of studies coincided with the rise of Nazism in Germany, and when she and Bernhard, who was Jewish, became engaged, they were forced to keep their relationship a secret. Bernhard left Germany in 1934 and went to Cambridge, England, while Neumann, intent on obtaining a doctoral degree, stayed in Berlin to finish her studies. At that time, "mixed" marriages had become illegal in Germany, and people of Jewish ancestry were not permitted to attend the universities. She was outspoken about her opposition to the Nazis and was one of a number of students who protected Jewish lecturers from harassment by guarding the doors of their classrooms during lectures and preventing Nazi supporters from entering. As a result of her activities, she lost her job at the Mathematical Institute. She and Bernhard kept their correspondence secret. When it came time for her examinations, she was advised to take the Staatsexamen, which reflected the breadth of a student's studies, rather than trying to obtain a doctoral degree by orally defending a thesis on a specific area of study. During her defense she would have been interrogated on her "political knowledge," possibly uncovering her anti-Nazi views. Given the political atmosphere at the time, this was good advice, and she followed it even though it meant she graduated without a doctoral degree.

Neumann was then accepted as a research student at Göttingen. By 1938, however, she gave up her studies due to the worsening situation in Germany and moved to England, where she and Bernhard were married. They lived in Cardiff, Wales, where their first child was born in 1939, but were then forced to leave due to restrictions placed on aliens. Within a week of their move to Oxford, Bernhard was interned, leaving Neumann alone with one young child and another on the way. (A few months later he would be released into the British Army.) Housing in England was scarce due to the large numbers of refugees from Europe, and in 1942 she and her two children moved into a trailer on a farm. At night, with the aid of candlelight, she worked on her doctoral thesis on the problem of determining the subgroup structure of free products of groups with an amalgamate subgroup. Neumann submitted her thesis in 1943, some months before her third child was born, and received a Ph.D. from Oxford University in April 1944.

After the war ended in 1945, Neumann and her husband moved their family to Hull, where they both found teaching positions at University College. Their fourth child was born there the following year. Bernhard took a position at Manchester University in 1948, while Neumann remained in Hull with their children. (Their fifth child would be born in 1951, and from time to time Neumann would attempt to find a position at Manchester University.) She was very involved with her students, many of whom became prominent mathematicians, and was well known for her enthusiastic approach to teaching and for the weekly gatherings of students and colleagues at her house. During her 12 years at University College, Neumann eventually became senior lecturer. She worked on group theory and published many papers, and in 1955 she earned a D.Sci. from Oxford. In 1958, she was appointed to a lectureship in the faculty of technology at Manchester University. She brought many new teachers and researchers along with her, and became involved in the Mathematical Society.

Neumann and her husband took a joint leave from their positions at Manchester in 1961 and went to New York, where they held positions at the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences. During this time Bernhard accepted an offer to start a research department of mathematics at the Australian National University, and Neumann obtained a position there as a reader (now called a professional fellow). Although she expected to be involved in research when she moved to Australia in 1963, she was instead offered the newly created chair of Pure Mathematics in the National University's School of General Studies. (This also made her Australia's first woman professor of mathematics.) Neumann again busied herself with her students and her family, and her earlier love for botany was revived when, using royalties from some of her published work, she purchased a camera with which she photographed the flowers and trees of Australia.

By the mid-1960s, the teaching of mathematics was changing throughout the world, and many Australian educators were unfamiliar with the new methods. Neumann helped to reorganize her own math department, gave lectures, designed new syllabi, trained teachers, talked to parents, and talked to schools. Her mission was to educate the community about math in order to create a favorable atmosphere for learning, and to lessen the "fear of math," particularly among young girls. In the following years, she was elected vice-president of the Australian Association of Mathematics Teachers, and president of the Canberra Mathematical Association. Her lectures were typically focused on group varieties and the Hopf problem, and she was invited to lecture all over Australia, Europe, the United States, and Canada. While on one such lecture tour through Canada in 1971, Neumann became ill and admitted herself into a hospital. Shortly thereafter, she fell into a coma and never regained consciousness. She died two days later, on November 14, 1971.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Young, Robyn V., ed. No-table Mathematicians: From Ancient Times to the Present. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998.

Christine Miner Minderovic , freelance writer, Ann Arbor, Michigan

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Neumann, Hanna (1914–1971)

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