From the Archives

Edith Luchins: Love of Mathematics

Edith Luchins
Edith Luchins, the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Rensselaer.

By Jenifer Monger, Assistant Institute Archivist

Edith Luchins served as professor of mathematical sciences at Rensselaer from 1962 to 2002. She was the first woman to be appointed a full professor at Rensselaer, and among the first tenured women full professors of mathematics at a major engineering school. Luchins’ research was based on mathematics and psychology in relation to information processing. She focused her work, in large part, on gender differences in cognitive processes and their implications for teaching and learning mathematics. She was also interested in the history of mathematics, and the history of women in mathematics. 

In 1981, while attending the annual meeting of the American Mathematical Association of America, Luchins was invited to participate in a news conference concerning a recent psychological study by Camilla Benbow and Julian Stanley of Johns Hopkins University. The study, published in 1980, was widely interpreted to mean that girls are born with less mathematical ability than boys. The authors inferred that genetic factors played a key role over environmental factors in contributing to the difference in math ability. Luchins was one of six mathematicians and educators to publicly criticize this interpretation. Her own study and research for the National Science Foundation, five years before the Stanley-Benbow study, found that more women than men reported being discouraged by their families, teachers, and advisors from becoming mathematicians on the ground that math was a “male discipline.”

Throughout Luchins tenure at RPI, she was involved in several projects and programs with fellow RPI colleagues regarding teacher education and precollege efforts. For example, from 1980-1983, under a grant from NSF and NIE, Luchins along with Edwin Rogers and James Voytuk developed computer graphic tutorial models to improve special visualization. The models were used for five weeks on the Apple II microcomputer by students at the Troy High School and Emma Willard. Luchins attained emeritus status at RPI in 1992 and established the Max Hirsch Prize in mathematics in honor of her father. Among her many honors were the Distinguished Teaching Award, the Darrin Counseling Award, the Martin Luther King Jr. Award, and the Rensselaer Alumni Association Outstanding Faculty Award.