Mary Ellen Rudin

Photo of Mary Ellen Rudin, taken by Wendi Kent, 2012
Photo of Mary Ellen Rudin, taken by Wendi Kent, 2012

Associate professor of Mathematics Jon Jacobsen suggested mathematician Prof. Mary Ellen Rudin (1924-2013) for ggstem.  He noted that she has almost 100 publications on MathSciNet with 435 citations, and research papers ranging from 1950 to 2002!  Jon found the following information in the article “An interview with Mary Ellen Rudin” by Don Albers and Constance Reid in the College Math Journal (19, 1988, no 2), including some nice quotes:

She and her mathematician husband, Walter, live in a home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. The house contains one hundred fifty windows and her work area is in the middle of the living room. She says that when her four children were young she “liked to do mathematics with the family where I sort of knew where they were.”Both my grandmothers grew up in this same town, and they both went to college there. The town was Winchester, Tennessee, and a college there for women had been founded just at the close of the Civil War [Mary Sharp College]. It was a real college for women. They had art and music and things like that, but they also had philosophy and mathematics and so on. It was quite unusual at that time and in that part of the world to have a college for women that wasn’t just a finishing school. My paternal grandmother, who was born in 1852, attended this college and was very good at mathematics. She was proud of that. My other grandmother was not so particularly good at mathematics. At least she didn’t brag about it later in life.

CMJ: How did you happen to go to the University of Texas?

Rudin: Well, my father had gone there. He considered it a first class place.

CMJ: When you set off for the University, did you have in mind a special subject that you wanted to study?

Rudin:  Oh, absolutely not! My father went along with me because he had an old girlfriend who taught English there and he wanted to talk to her about what I should take. They both felt that I should take just a perfectly general liberal arts course, partly to find out what I was interested in and partly because they both believed very strongly –and my mother certainly felt that way too — that one should be educated in the sense of having a broad education. So on the appropriate morning I went to the gymnasium to register for the things they had decided on. There was a mass of people, but there were very few people at the mathematics table so I was sent over there. The man who was sitting at the table was an old white-haired gentleman. He and I discussed all kinds of things for a long time. I now know the kinds of things that he must have asked me. There would have been lots of sentences with if and then. I used if and then correctly. I also used ‘and’ and ‘or’ correctly from a mathematician’s standpoint. At the end of our conversation he signed me up for the courses that I had written on my little slip of paper. When I went to my math class the next day, I found that the professor was R. L. Moore — the same man who had talked to me at the registration table.

Ed Burgess, for instance, remembers the following incident, which I don’t remember at all. We were discussing locking doors. I said that I would never lock the door to my house unless my husband insisted. Ed says that Moore literally pounced on that, saying, “Husband! But, Miss Estill, I thought that you were going to be a mathematician.”    Moore intended to elicit a response from me; but although he may have had his doubts, I never saw any contradiction in being both a housewife and a mathematician — of the two I was more driven to be a housewife.

Here are some lovely messages about Prof. Rudin from her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin – Madison from their department homepage:

Mary Ellen will be deeply missed, as she has been our friend, colleague and role model for many many years.  She truly loved mathematics and our department.  For me personally she was a pillar of support and strength. – Leslie Smith

Mary Ellen loved the department and the people within. This was very clear to anyone as her love just pour out of her through her smile, her conversation and her unwavering loyalty. But this was especially the case for the female mathematicians, to whom she offered sustained and continuous support and for whom she was and will be always a role model. Throughout my life in Madison Mary Ellen and I discussed many times the math world, the department and the role of family in one’s career, a topic where we held similar views. She game me tips on how to balance the work load, and encouraged me to follow my mathematical instinct and to aim high: always do good mathematics, time is too short to waste it on things that are not interesting! That was her constant message to me and to so many others. After talking to her one felt lucky to be a mathematician, her excitement so contagious and her support so strong you felt you could do extraordinary things. Even during the last months she remained the same old Mary Ellen: “how is your fantastic daughter?! is she still doing as great as usual?!” those were her last words to me. She left in her own terms, as one would hope, and we will miss her greatly. Let all of us learn from the good she did and try to support and help each other. This would be the best way to honor the memory of this most extraordinary woman. – Gloria Mari Beffa

Photo Courtesy UW Archives, #S04909

Having known both her and Walter, however briefly, I have to say that they always impressed me with their optimism and strength of character. I will certainly miss Mary Ellen’s iconic presence at the department parties and around the department altogether. – Andrei Caldararu

I, too, only new her briefly, but she certainly brightened my life.  My wife Wendi captured her lovely smile last year. (picture upper right)-Richard Kent

As a newcomer to the department, she welcomed me and that was very warming and nice.  “May her soul be bound in the bundle of life”   –  “תהיה נפשה צרורה בצרור החיים” – Shamgar Gurevich

I really enjoyed talking to Mary Ellen over these last two years when I saw her at department meetings.  She always had clever insights from her experience here in the department—she will be missed!  –Phil Matchett Wood

Update (7-5-15):  See this article about Rudin in the AMS notices.

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One Response to Mary Ellen Rudin

  1. Pingback: Blog Celebrates the Grandmothers of Science, Tech, Engineering, & Math | The Hearth

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