by Joan S. Birman
I was born on May 30, 1927, in New York City. My mother and father were Lillian Siegel Lyttle and George Lyttle. Their parents had left the eastern European “pale of settlement”, during a wave of emigration by Jews who left home and family to escape anti-Semitism. My mom’s parents came to the US, and in particular to the lower east side of Manhattan, where many others went; my dad’s family settled in Liverpool, England, where he grew up, coming to the US at 17 in search of adventure and an economic opportunity. In this brief autobiographical sketch I will attempt to describe how this particular mix of influences impacted on the family atmosphere in the Lyttle household, when my three sisters and I were growing up.
My maternal grandparents, Aigie and Reuben Siegel,came from the town of Jonava in Lithuania (20 miles from Kaunas, near an ever-shifting border between Russia, Lithuania and Poland). Reuben had come to New York ahead of Aigie, seeking a better way of life, and a few years later 28-year-old Aigie joined him, arriving with her two oldest children, my Uncle Jake and Aunt Annie, in tow. The day of her arrival could be pinpointed precisely as 09/19/1881 because she told me that she learned, from newsboys on the dock as their ship was landing, that the President of the United States had been assassinated! She was terrified, because to her the US sounded just like Russia, where the czar had been assassinated, and political chaos that was not good for Jews ensued.
Reuben Siegel had been a peddler in the “old country”, and in New York he began his working days selling fabrics from a pushcart on the lower East Side of Manhattan. He and his sons worked hard and prospered, eventually becoming manufacturer’s of women’s dresses. My mother, Lil, was born in New York in 1894. Lil told her children many stories about assorted characters from “the old country” who arrived in New York and slept on their couch before finding a job and a place to live. From her colorful stories, and more that we heard from my grandmother Aigie (whose grandchildren called her “Mimi”) it was a lively environment, rich in culture and tradition. Regarding the religious tradition, the emphasis in my family was more on the culture than the religion.
After Reuben died, Mimi lived with us half the year (sharing my bedroom). Every Friday night most of my mother’s brothers and sisters and their (sometimes reluctant) spouses and children joined us for a feast. I remember those gatherings very well, beginning with the wonderful smell of bread baking when I came home from school on Thursday, and going on to the fun of being with my many cousins.
My paternal grandparents, Hyman and Ada Lyttle, came from the town of Lida, on the shifting border between Russia and Lithuania. George was born in 1889 in Lida, but his parents, like those of the Olympic star Harold Abrahams in the film “Chariots of Fire”, chose to go to England rather than to the US, arriving when George was 3. The family name “Lyttle” was chosen by a British immigration officer who asked George’s father for his name. His English was limited, and thinking he had been asked where he came from he answered “Lithuania”, which was recorded as “Lyttle”. George came to the US at the age of 17, seeking adventure and economic opportunity. He thrived, and soon set aside enough money to rent an apartment on Riverside Drive near 180th Street, and bring his parents, his younger brother Harry and three sisters to New York, working his way up from shipping clerk to traveling salesman to eventual part owner of the dress firm Siegel–Lyttle.
George told his children “If you’re willing to work hard enough, anything is possible in the USA”, however he also told us, emphatically and regularly, that studying and learning were better ways to a good life. Neither of my parents had finished high school, but almost everyone in my generation graduated from college and went on to achieve in some way. My sister Ruth and I achieved in academia and academic research; a close cousin, Robert Schakne, became a CBS reporter; his sister Anne Schakne Harris became an editor at a major publishing house. Others achieved in law. But there was more than that. As Reuben Siegel did well, he kept in mind that others were not so fortunate, becoming one of the founders of the Hebrew Free Loan Society, which to this day makes interest-free loans to small businesses. In these very personal ways, philanthropy became part of my extended family tradition.
To his clear disappointment, my dad had no sons, but as I think back on it, my mother (who had no articulated intellectual ambitions of her own) and father (who had no time for much besides work) encouraged their four daughters to follow their natural interests wherever they took us. For example, while I loved my dolls and spent happy hours with girlfriends playing a game we called “house”, and my mom encouraged that by sewing clothes for my dolls, my parents also bought me an erector set and “Tinker Toys”. I have clear memories of being called to come down to dinner, but not wanting to go until I figured out how to solve the problem of balancing a top-heavy crane that I had constructed.
My three sisters were Helen, the oldest, and then Ruth, me and Ada. We lived in a large house in Lawrence, Long Island, but my family moved to New York City when I was 12 (because the chances for finding husbands for four girls were deemed to be better in the city!). I attended Julia Richmond High School, a large inner city school for girls. After a semester at Julia Richmond, I was admitted to its honors program, and school changed from being rough and even dangerous every day to a wonderful place, with small classes, fine teachers and an excellent learning environment. I made lifelong friends there. My high school education included Latin, Shakespeare’s plays, and an excellent course in Euclidean geometry (taught with axioms and proofs and a satisfying QED when you reached the end). I remember being less mature socially than most of my classmates, but there must have been an atmosphere of basic tolerance for differences, because I recall that the spirit was accepting and positive. One of the girls in the geometry class that I loved (Jean Sammet) became a computer scientist who developed the FORMAC programming language in 1962, another was the writer Ann Burstein. Others surely achieved too, but we lost touch with one another permanently because of name changes after marriage.
College and the start of adult life
In those days the best colleges in the US that admitted women were women’s colleges, and Helen, Ruth and I all graduated from Barnard. Helen majored in math, in fact she even won the Barnard math prize. Ruth’s interests were initially physics, but morphed toward plant physiology later in her life. Our youngest sister, Ada, became a kindergarten teacher. Following my own interests (and probably the examples set by Ruth and Helen), I too majored in math. I worked in industry immediately after graduating from college, rather than going on to graduate school, the traditional career for students with my tastes and talents. Why? I was offered a job that involved an interesting math problem, and the possibility of solving it in a leisurely way, while earning some money, was totally appealing. While I was working for the Polytechnic Research and Development Company, I thought about the kind of work I might be equipped to do that would be more long-range. That was how it happened that a few years after graduating from Barnard I earned an MA in Physics at Columbia. While I enjoyed lab work, by the time I received my degree it had become plain that my interests were much more in math, even though the Physics MA opened up a wider choice of jobs.
In this regard I want to point out that when I was a young adult, men and women were expected to play traditional roles. The men were expected to support a family, whereas women were expected to keep the home fires burning. Such expectations were incompatible with careers for women at the traditional age. There had been lively discussions at the Lyttle family dinner table about world affairs, careers, and about the role women might play in such matters. One of my role models had even been my dearly beloved mother’s sister, Alice Schakne, who was a real intellectual, unlike most of the women in her generation. However, even with Alice as a role model, the underlying pressures were always in the air. If a young woman wanted independence from her family, the acceptable way to gain it was at the same time to put yourself at risk of losing it — to get married, move away from your family, but then have children and start a new cycle of dependency. That risk was in the air, but it did not trouble me deeply.
Indeed, my older sisters Helen and then Ruth married in their early 20’s, and I wanted very much to follow in their footsteps. It seemed to me that marriage would be a basic decision about how my life would go, so that while I obviously would need graduate school and further training to become a mathematician, that was a decision that could be put off, but the choice of a partner for life could not. Helen married “well”, as they said in those days, and ultimately devoted herself wholeheartedly and intelligently to philanthropy. As I mentioned earlier, that was part of the family tradition, and she evidently felt no angst at abandoning math. Ruth married a young lawyer, Robert Satter, who eventually became a judge in the Connecticut court system.
After obtaining my BA from Barnard, I was offered and accepted a position at PRD, the Polytechnic Research and Development Co., a company that was affiliated with Brooklyn Polytechnic University, a nearby engineering school. PRD was a commercial firm that made and sold microwave frequency meters, most of its senior staff being faculty members at the university. It was explained to me that the meters were cylindrical cavities, each one of fixed radius \( r \), with each cylinder having a fixed bottom disc and a top disc whose distance \( h \) from the bottom disc could be varied. The resonant frequency of a meter of radius \( r \) was a function \( \phi_r(h) \). I was hired for a curve-fitting problem — to replace the drive that controlled \( h \) with a new drive that would be, for practical purposes, linear. Examining the response curves, I solved the problem by interpreting \( h \) as the height of a ladder sliding down a wall, with \( x \) the distance of its base from the wall. The length of the ladder and the initial height were parameters that could be adjusted to fit the data. That job ended with boxes filled with recalibrated meters of all sizes, each with a linear dial!
There were other jobs like that one. I worked for PRD (above) and for the Technical Research Group TRD, and for the W. L. Maxson Corporation. Thinking that an MA in Physics might open new doors, I became a graduate student at Columbia, earning a small amount of money as a Physics Lab Assistant at Barnard. That’s how it happened that I registered in a Physics lab course at Columbia, and at the same time audited a course at NYU taught by Professor. One of my fellow students in both classes was Joseph Birman, then a young grad student in Chemistry at Columbia, who had served in the US Navy near the end of World War II. Joe noticed me in both classes, and introduced himself, and that’s how we got together. We were married in 1950, and our marriage lasted over 66 years. We were well suited to one another in many ways. Initially I was the main family wage earner, but when Joe received his PhD he quickly took over that role. We had three children, Kenneth, Deborah and Carl-David. I took care of them when they were very young (there really were no alternatives in those days) and worked two days a week; my cleaning woman stayed with them during those two days. I finally began graduate studies in Mathematics, initially as a part-time student at NYU’s Courant Institute shortly after Carl-David was born.
I received my PhD in May 1968, 20 years after graduating from Barnard College, and began my first job, as a tenure-track Assistant Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology, an engineering school on the banks of the Hudson River in New Jersey. Advancing quickly, I was appointed Professor of Mathematics (with tenure) at Barnard-Columbia in 1974. While there were almost no women mathematicians in those days, “women’s lib” was in the air and there were people who wanted to help (and some who didn’t like the idea of women colleagues at all). Among the mathematicians who helped me I mention, , , , and .
My sister Ruth’s path was also wandering, but she too ultimately succeeded in finding a rich career in academia. After college she was hired to a responsible position at Bell Labs, but she lost that job when the men returned from World War II. Being by nature a serious thinker, while her four children were growing up Ruth began experiments in her home garden on circadian rhythms she had noticed in plants. Her daughter Shoshanna described this by saying “when we came home from school and the oven was going we knew better than to expect brownies, more likely it was mom sterilizing dirt”. She earned her Ph.D. from U. Conn at Storrs, in biology, at roughly the same time that I received my PhD from NYU. She was offered and accepted a first class postdoc in the Plant Physiology Department at Yale. But then her career seemed to get stuck. Her mentor and employer was a Yale professor, but their ideas about research directions did not always agree, and she longed to apply for her own grants. She fought that battle hard, but did not win it: the Yale administration was adamant, only faculty members holding an academic line could apply for grants through Yale. Eventually she left Yale, and became a Professor at Storrs, where she mentored many students and did fine work. Her life was cut short at the age of 68, after a battle with leukemia. The AMS Satter Prize was established in her memory, with the first prize awarded in 1991.