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Gertrude Blanch (Born: 2 February 1897 in Kolno, Russian Empire (now Poland); Died: 1 January 1996) was an American mathematician who did pioneering work in numerical analysis and computation. She was an leader of the Mathematical Tables Project in New York from its beginning. She worked later as the assistant director and leader of the Numerical Analysis at UCLA computing division, and was head of mathematical research for the Aerospace Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Early Years and Education
Blanch was named Gittel Kaimowitz when she was born in Kolno. Kolno was historically a part of Poland, but it was partitioned off in to the Russian Empire at that time. Her parents were Wolfe Kaimowitz and Dora Blanc, and she was the youngest of their seven children. Blanch's father emigrated to the United States, with the intention of having his wife and the younger children follow him in due course. In 1907, Dora with Gittel and one other daughter, joined Wolfe Kaimowitz in New York.
Blanch was about 10 years old when she arrived in the US, and attended public schools in New York City. In 1914 she graduated from Eastern District High School in Brooklyn. Later that year her father died, so she decided to take a job to support her family. She spent fourteen years as a clerk, saving money for school. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics with a minor in Physics from New York University in 1932. The same year she changed her name from Kaimowitz to Blanch, which is her mother's Americanized name. She received her Ph.D. from Cornell University in algebraic geometry in 1935.
For a while she worked as a tutor in place of a colleague on leave at Hunter College; then, in 1938, she began work on the Mathematical Tables Project of the WPA, for which she was "Director of Mathematics" and "Manager of Computation." This entailed designing algorithms that were executed by teams of human computers under her direction. Many of these computers possessed only rudimentary mathematical skills, but the algorithms and error checking in the Mathematical Tables Project were sufficiently well designed that their output defined the standard for transcendental function solution for decades. This project later became the Computation Laboratory of the National Bureau of Standards.
The Mathematical Tables Project became an independent organization following the termination of the WPA at the end of 1942. During World War II, it operated as a major computing office for the US government and did calculations for the Office for Scientific Research and Development, the Army, the Navy, the Manhattan Project and other institutions. Blanch led the group throughout the war.
After the war, Blanch's career was hampered by FBI suspicions that she was secretly a communist. Their evidence for this seems scarce, and included, for example, the observation that she had never married or had children, as well as the fact that her sister was affiliated with the Communist Party. In what must have been a remarkable showdown, the diminutive fifty-year-old mathematician demanded, and won, a hearing to clear her name.
She published over thirty papers on functional approximation, numerical analysis and Mathieu functions. In 1962, she was elected a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1964, she received the Federal Woman's Award, an award for women who had exemplary professional service in the United States Government.
- The Gertrude Blanch Papers (1932-1996)
Honors and awards
- Received the Federal Woman's Award (1964)
- Elected a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1962)
Blanch retired in 1967 at the age of 69, but continued working under a consulting contract for the Air Force for another year. Thereafter she moved to San Diego and continued to work on numerical solutions of Mathieu functions until her death in 1996, concentrating on the use of continued fractions to achieve highly accurate results in a small number of computational steps. This work has not been published.
- Grier, David Alan, "Gertrude Blanch of the Mathematical Tables Project", Annals of the History of Computing, 19.4 (1997), 18-27.
- Grier, David Alan, "The Math Tables Project of the Work Projects Administration: the reluctant start of the computing era", Annals of the History of Computing, 20 (1998), 33-50.
- Grier, David Alan, "When Computers Were Human", 2005.
- "Gertrude Blanch", Biographies of Women Mathematicians, Agnes Scott College
- Gertrude Blanch Papers, 1932-1996 Charles Babbage Institute, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.
- Computer Oral History Collection: Dr. Gertrude Blanch, 1969-1973 Smithsonian National Museum of American History
- Gertrude Blanch, The History of Numerical Analysis and Scientific Computing
- Blanch Biography, University of St Andrews