Dr. Irene Nekhama Fischer

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Dr. Irene Nekhama Fischer (Kaminka)

Birthplace: Vienna, Austria
Death: October 22, 2009 (102)
Boston, Suffolk, MA, United States
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Dr. Armand Ahron Noach Kaminka and Klara Kaminka
Wife of Dr. Eric Fischer
Mother of Private and Michael Max Jonathan Fischer
Sister of Ephraim Felix David Kaminka and Gideon Guido Kaminka

Occupation: Geophysicist, Geodesist
Managed by: Rafi Kornfeld (c)
Last Updated:

About Dr. Irene Nekhama Fischer

Irene Kaminka Fischer (born July 27, 1907 in Vienna, died October 22, 2009 in Boston) was a mathematician, geodesist, National Academy of Engineering Member; Fellow International Geophysical Union, Inductee of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency Hall of Fame. Fischer became one of two internationally known women scientists in the field of geodesy during the golden age of the Mercury and Apollo moon missions. Her Mercury Datum, or Fischer Ellipsoid 1960 and 1968, as well as her work on the lunar parallax, were instrumental in conducting these missions.

Born and educated in Vienna, Austria, she studied descriptive and projective geometry at the Technical University of Vienna and mathematics at the University of Vienna. Her teachers Moritz Schlick and Hans Hahn were among the luminaries of the Vienna Circle; and her fellow students included physicist Victor Weiskopf, sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, and social psychologist Marie Jahoda. Her father, the Rabbi Armand/Aaron Kaminka, was head of the Maimonides Institute, and regularly led high holiday services at the famed Vienna Musikverein. He worked for the Alliance Israelite investigating pogroms in Eastern Europe and raised money in the U.S. and Western Europe to help victims.

In 1931 she married historian and geographer Eric Fischer, who helped introduce American, as distinct from British, history to Vienna. The Fischer family founded and ran the Vienna Kinderbewahranstallt, the first professional kindergarten and kindergarten teacher training school in Vienna, a place that also became a refuge for immigrants to Vienna from Eastern Europe.

In 1939, the Fischers, with their young daughter, Gay, fled Nazi Austria, traveling by rail to Italy, by boat to Palestine and in 1941 by boat around East Africa and the Cape of Good Hope to Boston where they lived with Eric Fischer's sister, mother, and brother in law, the physician Otto Ehrentheil and their two daughters. Looking for jobs, Irene Fischer first worked as a seamstress’ assistant, then she graded blue books for Wassily Leontief at Harvard and for Norbert Wiener at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She also worked on stereoscopic projective geometry trajectories for John Rule at MIT. She taught mathematics at Brown and Nichols Preparatory School in Cambridge, and then at Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C.

After World War II, and after her son, Michael, born in 1946, had reached school age, she found a job at the then Army Map Service, now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in Potomac, Md., working under John A. O’Keefe in the Geodesy Branch and rising through the ranks to become the chief. Her twenty-five year career at AMS, working on what became the World Geodetic System, produced over 120 scientific publications. On the side, she published a high school geometry textbook in 1965 one of her many endeavors as an educator. After retiring in 1975, she wrote a memoir of her scientific career that was first serialized in the ACSM Bulletin, [an official publication of five surveying and mapping professional organizations, 2004–06] covering the field of geodesy in the years 1951–1975, and discussing doing science in a man’s world in a government bureaucracy. It was published as a book in 2005.

At the very beginning of her career in mathematics and geodesy Geodesy, Dr. Fischer had quickly taught herself the basics of geodetic tables, datums Datum (geodesy), transformations, gravity studies, astronomy, long lines, flare triangulation, and guided missile ballistics. Her updates to geodetic science helped determine the parallax of the moon. Irene Fischer was also intrigued by research into post glacial uplift, and her geoid studies went hand in hand with investigations of the lingering effects of the last ice age.

Dr. Fischer disagreed with the established figure for the oblateness of the earth (the fraction by which the polar axis is foreshortened by the equatorial radius), which had remained unchallenged since 1924. She was forbidden to use her updated figures in her own work because that result was in disagreement with the accepted literature. However, after the flight of the first satellites, she was vindicated by the data and observations from the instruments, and she was allowed to amend her previous works with her newly derived figures. In commenting on the lack of faith others put on her research, Dr. Fischer goodheartedly quipped that the satellites had not accepted the accepted literature, either.

A pioneer during a time when there were few women in surveying, in 1967, Dr. Fischer was the first Army Map Service employee, and only the third woman ever, to receive the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. Dr. Fischer was internationally known for her many publications and presentations on the size and shape of the earth, including the Department of Defense manual, “Latitude Functions Fischer 1960 Ellipsoid.”

Dr. Fischer wrote an autobiography (published 2005), entitled, “Geodesy? What’s That? My Personal Involvement in the Age-Old Quest for the Size and Shape of the Earth, With a Running Commentary on Life in a Government Research Office.” In addition, Dr. Fischer has written more than 120 other technical reports, articles and books in her fields of expertise, and many of her significant government reports are still classified today.

Winner of many Federal Government service awards, Fischer was awarded an honorary degree by the University of Karlsruhe, elected to the National Academy of Engineering, elected Fellow of the International Geophysical Union, and inducted into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) Hall of Fame, and the Learning Center at the new campus of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency has been named in her honor.

She and her family were active for many years at Temple Israel in Silver Spring, Md., where she also taught an adult class in basic Hebrew, and was an active member of a forty year long chavura (discussion group). When she moved to Rockville, Md., she joined Congregation Beth Israel and endowed a Biblical archeology lecture series in her husband’s memory at the Rockville Jewish Community Center. In Israel, where many family members live, she and her husband endowed fellowships to a technical college. In 2001 she moved back to Brighton, Mass., three blocks from where she had first lived as an immigrant in 1941. In 2007 she celebrated her 100th birthday, and her children told the packed and rapt audience of her retirement community about her career. She is survived by her daughter Gay Fischer of Oberlin, Ohio, her son Michael M.J. Fischer and daughter-in-law Susann L. Wilkinson of Somerville, Mass., and many nephews and nieces, the children and grandchildren of her two brothers in Israel, and of her husband’s sister in New England. FISCHER IRENE FISCHER (Age 102) On Thursday, October 22, 2009, Irene Fischer in Brighton, MA, formerly of Takoma Park and Rockville, MD. Beloved wife of the late Eric Fischer; devoted mother of Gay Fischer of Oberlin, OH and Michael Fischer (Susann Wilkinson) of Somerville, MA; loving sister of the late Guido Kaminka and Felix Kaminka both of Israel. Graveside funeral service will be held Sunday, October 25, 1 p.m. at Mount Lebanon Cemetery, Adelphi, MD. Expressions of sympathy may be made to Hadassah, www.hadassah.org . Arrangements by Danzansky-Goldberg Memorial Chapels, Inc., 301-340-1400.

Published in The Washington Post on October 24, 2009

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Dr. Irene Nekhama Fischer's Timeline

July 27, 1907
Vienna, Austria
October 22, 2009
Age 102
Boston, Suffolk, MA, United States