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Irene Fischer

Irene K. Fischer was responsible for transforming the way we understand the world! She helped to develop the coordinate system that became the unified World Geodetic System giving new understanding of the size and shape of the earth as well as its location in space.

Irene Kaminka Fischer was born July 27, 1907 in Vienna, Austria. She grew up there and eventually studied mathematics at the University of Vienna and descriptive and projective geometry at the Technical University of Vienna. She married in 1930, and she and her husband started the first kindergarten and kindergarten teacher training school in Vienna.

However, in 1939 the Fischers fled Nazi occupation in Austria and made their way to Boston, MA, with their young daughter. In looking for jobs in Massachusetts, Irene first worked a seamstress assistant and then began to grade tests for mathematics and economics professors at MIT and Harvard. Eventually she began helping a professor at MIT with mathematics research and taught mathematics at preparatory schools in Cambridge. She then taught at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington, DC, after her family moved to Maryland.

At 45 years of age, Irene joined the Army Map Service (now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the Army Geospatial Center) as a mathematician studying geodesy. That is the science of measuring and understanding earth’s geometric shape, its orientation in space, and its gravitational field. All of those things became increasingly important for national security just as the space program and artificial satellites meant that measurements of the Earth would become more reliable and easier to gather. Irene proved adept at studying the Earth’s surface, and she soon rose to become chief of the geoid branch where she stayed until she retired in 1977. She led the Army Map Service to international renown although few women worked in geodesy or surveying at the time. She developed the Mercury Datum, a 3-D model of the Earth, as part of her work for the Mercury Space program. She also calculated distances to the Moon that would prove fundamental to the Apollo missions. Her work formed the basis for the coordinate system that became the unified World Geodetic System which is fundamental for navigation techniques such as GPS technology.

In addition to her technical expertise, Irene Fischer took delight in helping others to understand her life and work. She gave talks and wrote over 100 papers, articles, and books in her field. She wrote a high school geometry textbook in 1965, and after her retirement she published an unconventional memoir, “Geodesy, What’s That? My Personal Involvement in the Age-Old Quest for the Size and Shape of the Earth.” She described the many hurdles she faced as a woman in a largely male government bureaucracy, and she also lauded the many individuals who helped and contributed to a long and fulfilling career.

Dr. Fischer has been recognized for her work with numerous awards. Among other recognition, she received a Distinguished Civilian Service Award (only the 3rd woman to ever receive that award) from the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army’s Meritorious Civilian Service Medal, and an honorary doctorate from the University of Karlsruhe. She was also elected as a fellow of the American Geophysical Union. She became a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1979, and she was later inducted into the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s Hall of Fame. She passed away in Boston at the age of 102.

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