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Introducing the Marion Walter Collection

Carol Mead

(From left) Danziger?; Johannes Gaultherus van der Corput; Marion Walter; Magnus Hestenes, 1952-53.
Can you identify the mathematician on the far left? We believe his last name is Danziger, but have been unable to make a positive identification. (Full size)

This article is published in the April/May 2012 issue of MAA FOCUS.

In 2011, Marion Walter, professor emerita at the University of Oregon in Eugene, donated her collection of photographs of mathematicians to the Archives of American Mathematics. The Marion Walter Photograph Collection consists of nearly 60 photographic prints, negatives, and slides, and includes such figures as Olga Taussky-Todd, John Todd, George Pólya, Paul ErdÅ‘s, D. H. Lehmer, Ernst Straus, and many other notable mathematicians. Walter took most of the pictures between 1952 and 1954.

To view the digitized photographs, please visit the Archives of American Mathematics website here.

Walter was born in Germany in 1928. Most of her life, however, has been spent in England and the United States. In 1939, her parents were able to put her and her sister on a Kindertransport (a rescue effort that brought Jewish children to Great Britain), where she attended boarding school.

Walter’s Career

Her long teaching career began when she was 16 years old. After graduating from boarding school, Walter stayed at the school to teach mathematics for two terms. In 1948, after two years of college, she left England for the United States, where she pursued her studies and a career in teaching mathematics. She obtained her B.A. degree from Hunter College (1948−50). After two years of teaching high school during the day and studying at night at New York University (NYU), she became a research assistant at NYU’s Institute of Mathematics and Mechanics (now the Courant Institute). She received her master’s degree in mathematics from NYU in 1954. She earned her Ed.D. in mathematics education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) (1963−67).

Olga Taussky-Todd and John Todd, undated. Marion Walter Photograph Collection, Archives of American Mathematics

In the summers of 1952 and 1953, she was awarded a National Bureau of Standards Summer Student Scholarship to study at the Institute of Numerical Analysis at the University of California, Los Angeles, headed by D. H. Lehmer. During this period she met most of the mathematicians in this photo collection, including Taussky-Todd, who encouraged her to continue work on her master’s degree thesis. From 1954 to 1956, Walter was a teaching fellow at Cornell University. In 1956, she accepted an appointment at Simmons College, where she remained for nine years and instituted the college’s major in mathematics.

The 1960s was a fertile decade for Walter, one that had lasting influence on her career and deepened her interests in informal geometry, problem posing, and links between mathematics and the visual arts. In 1960, she was awarded a National Science Foundation Summer Fellowship at Stanford, where one of her teachers was George Pólya. During the summers from 1962 to 1967, she participated in the Elementary Science Study at the Education Development Center (EDC) in Newton, Massachusetts, where she worked on mathematics curriculum development. After resigning from Simmons in 1965 to work on her doctorate at the HGSE, which she had begun in 1963, she also continued to work at the EDC, until 1967, and served as teaching fellow and instructor at HGSE. Upon completion of her doctorate, Walter was appointed assistant professor to teach prospective elementary and high school teachers.

Among her activities at Harvard, Walter worked with her colleague, Stephen Brown, to create a course that focused on posing and solving problems. Their collaboration resulted in several publications, including their 1983 book, The Art of Problem Posing (third edition in 2005) and the 1993 publication of Problem Posing: Reflections and Application, which they edited.

Elementary School Workshops

Another highlight of her Harvard activities was the creation of the Boston Area Math Specialists (BAMS), which Walter formed to provide workshops for elementary school mathematics specialists. BAMS is still very active today. In addition, she was a mathematics consultant to several projects, including the project that became Sesame Street.

The following decade began with the publication of Boxes, Squares, and Other Things: A Teacher’s Guide for a Unit in Informal Geometry, which was published in 1970 by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. It was followed by the first of several books for children, all of which make use of a mirror. The rest of the decade was full of transition. She took a nine-month appointment at the Atlantic Institute of Education and Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She also worked as a UNESCO consultant for mathematics teaching in Israel, taught at the State University of New York in Buffalo, had appointments as a research associate at the Children’s Hospital in Boston, gave workshops, and continued publishing articles, chapters in books, and books for children. In 1977, Walter began teaching in the mathematics department of the University of Oregon. She continued publishing and giving workshops and talks to teachers both in the United States and abroad. She retired from full-time teaching in 1993.

Walter has been honored with several awards. She was awarded honorable mention for two of her children’s books (1973, 1986) by the New York Academy of Sciences Children’s Science Book Award program. In 2003, she was elected to the Massachusetts Hall of Fame for Mathematics Educators. Simmons College gave Walter an honorary degree in 2010.

Carol Mead is the archivist for the Archives of American Mathematics, located in the Research and Collections division of the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History on the University of Texas at Austin campus. Contact her by email ( or by phone (512-495-4539).

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