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In Service to Mathematics: The Life and Work of Mina Rees

Amy Shell-Gellasch
Docent Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Allen Stenger
, on

Mina Spiegel Rees (1902–1997) was an American mathematician who worked primarily in administration rather than in teaching or research. This is a short but comprehensive biography of Rees’s life that includes a lengthy discussion of her PhD work on division algebras, directed by Leonard Eugene Dickson. The bibliographic information for this volume is skimpy, but the work appears to be a slightly revised version of the author’s 2000 Doctor of Arts thesis.

The book is something of a hodge-podge. It starts out with a brief appreciation of Rees’s work, followed by a brief scientific biography. Then there is a lengthy chapter (about one-third of the whole book) that goes into detail on her thesis. This is of more interest to historians of mathematics than to mathematicians, because (as Saunders Mac Lane observes on p. 48) Emmy Noether’s work at the same time made Rees’s thesis obsolete.

The really interesting part of the book is the next chapter, on her work during and after World War II on the Applied Mathematics Panel and its successor the Office of Naval Research, where again she was not a researcher but did much to influence the development of numerical analysis and computers. The book closes with a briefer look at her return to academia, where as an administrator at CUNY she influenced the direction of graduate mathematics education in the US. The book closes with several appendices of lists about her career.

The production quality is poor. I spotted a dozen typographical or spelling errors (in a 138-page book) without even trying. Figures 2.1, a page from the family birth records, is repeated two pages later as Figure 2.3, which suggests that the real Figure 2.3 was lost.

Bottom line: An interesting look at one mathematician’s career, presented in the context of a period when government support of, and involvement in, mathematics was rapidly increasing.

Allen Stenger is a math hobbyist and retired software developer. He is webmaster and newsletter editor for the MAA Southwestern Section and is an editor of the Missouri Journal of Mathematical Sciences. His mathematical interests are number theory and classical analysis. He volunteers in his spare time at, a math help site that fosters inquiry learning.

Chapter 1 Introduction
Chapter 2 Mina Rees, 1902–1997
Chapter 3 Division Algebras
  A Brief History of Algebras
  Why Study Division Algebras?
  Dickson and Rees
  Dickson 1914
  Dickson 1926
  Dickson 1930
  Rees's Doctoral Dissertation
Chapter 4 World War II
  The Applied Mathematics Panel
  Rees's Work on the Applied Mathematics Panel
Chapter 5 Post-War: 1946–1953
  The Office of Naval Research
  Early Computers
Chapter 6 Rees and Graduate Education: 1953–1972
  Rees's Impact on Graduate Education
Chapter 7 Conclusion
Appendix A Course Work at Columbia University
Appendix B Course Work at the University of Chicago
Appendix C King's Medal of Great Britain
Appendix D Presidential Certificate of Merit
Appendix E MAA Award for Distinguished Service
Appendix F Resolution of the Council of the AMS
Appendix G National Academy of Sciences Letter
Appendix H Awards
Appendix I Honorary Degrees
Appendix J Service
Appendix K Chronology