Irene 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. "In his preface to the ACSM publication, Fischer's former colleague, Bernard Chovitz, referred to her as one of the most renowned geodesists of the third quarter of the twentieth century. Yet this fact alone makes her one of the most renowned geodesists of all times, because, according to Chovitz, the third quarter of the twentieth century witnessed "the transition of geodesy from a regional to a global enterprise."

Early life and education

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 Weisskopf, sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld, and social psychologist Marie Jahoda. Her father, Rabbi Armand Aharon Kaminka [de], was head of the Maimonides Institute, and regularly led high holiday services at the famed Vienna Musikverein. He worked for the Alliance Israélite Universelle 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 established and ran the 1843-founded Vienna Israelitische Kinderbewahranstalt, 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.

Career in Mathematics

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, 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 and the Army Geospatial Center 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, Dr. Fischer had quickly taught herself the basics of geodetic tables, datums, 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.

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, Fischer was the first Army Map Service employee, and only the third woman ever, to receive the Distinguished Civilian Service Award. 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.”

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, 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.

Bibliography of Publications

  • Fischer, Irene. 2006. "Racing Against Time." American Congress on Surveying and Mapping Bulletin. Volume 220, pages 38–48.
  • Fischer, Irene K. 2006. "Catch 22 and a String of Kudos" [Falls Church, Va.]: American Congress on Surveying and Mapping, Edition/Format: Article. Publication: ACSM bulletin. no. 221, (2006): 22.
  • Fischer, Irene K. 2005. 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. New York, N.Y.: IUniverse, Inc.ISBN 0-595-36399-7.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1998. "Earth, Size of." In Good, G.S., ed. Sciences of the Earth: Encyclopedia of Events, People and Phenomena. Garland Publishing: New York.ISBN 081530062X.
  • Fischer, Irene K. 1981. "At the dawn of geodesy." Bulletin Géodésique, 1981, Volume 55, Number 2, Page 132. Abstract: The first land surveyors were rope stretchers and rope knotters, remembered in ancient documents and tomb paintings and also in some terminology. The L-shaped carpenter’s square, one of the earliest and most versatile basic tools, represents the observed direction of the plumb line versus the water level and appears as the shadow-casting gnomon and also as the geometrical gnomon in magically-restricted enlargements of altars. The related “Pythagorean” theorem was known in antiquity centuries before Pythagoras, with algebraic proofs in Babylonia and China. The spherical shape of the earth, deduced from the observation of circumpolar stars, was part of a complete equatorial astronomical system in ancient China. But although shadow measurements were generally used to establish north-south distances, only the Greeks derived from them the size of the earth. The striking difference between the abstract, geometric approach of Greece and the concrete, algebraic approach of Babylonia and China represents not a difference in talents but a difference in culture-bound interests.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1979. "The Effect of the Mid‐Atlantic Ridge in Terms of Gravity Anomalies, Geoidal Undulations, and Deflections of the Vertical". Marine Geodesy. 2, no. 3: 215-237.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1977. "Mean Sea Level and the Marine Geoid—an Analysis of Concepts". Marine Geodesy. 1, no. 1: 37-59.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1977. "Does mean sea level slope up or down toward north?" Curitiba: Universidade Federal do Paraná, Curso de Pós-Graduação em Ciências Geodésicas, 1977. Series: Boletim da Universidade Federal do Paraná; Geodésia (Curitiba, Brazil), no. 20.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1976. "Does Mean Sea Level Slope Up or Down Toward North?" Bulletin Géodésique. 50, no. 1: 79-80.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1977. "Marine Geodesy: A New Discipline or the Modem Realization of an Ancient Endeavor?" Marine Geodesy. 1, no. 2: 165-175.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1975. "The Figure of the Earth? Changes in Concepts". Geophysical Surveys. 2, no. 1: pages 3–54.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1974. "Deflections at Sea". Journal of Geophysical Research. 79, no. 14: pages 2123-2128.
  • Fischer, Irene. Deflections at Sea: Presented to the International Symposium on the Earth's Gravitational Field and Secular Variations in Position, Sydney ... 1973. Washington: Defense Mapping Agency, Topographic Center, 1973.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1972. The geoid; what's that?: All you wanted to know. Defense Mapping School (Fort Belvoir, Va.) Publisher: Ft. Belvoir, Va. : Defense Mapping School, 1972. Series: Student pamphlet, 4M-710-E-010-010 / Defense Mapping School. Fischer, Irene. The Geoid: All You Wanted to Know. Ft. Belvoir, Va: Defense Mapping School, 1972.
  • Fischer, Irene, and Sandra Todd. A Refined Procedure for Computing Geodetic Distances from HIRAN Observations: Presented to the 52nd Annual Meeting of the American Geophysical Union, Washington ... 1971. Washington: U. S. Army Topographic Command, 1971. EOS Transactions, American Geophysical Union. Volume 54, number 4, pages 185-185.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1970. "El geoide sudamericano referido a varios sistemas de referencia." Publisher: Buenos Aires [s.n.] 1970. Series: Publicación de la Comisión de Cartografía, n. 325.2. Spanish. "Separata de la Revista Cartográfica no. 18, año XVIII, 1969."
  • Fischer, Irene. The Geoid in South America Refered [sic] to Various Reference Systems. Buenos Aires: Instituto Panamericano de Geografia e Historia, 1970. Paper Presented to the Xth Pan American Consultation on Cartography, Guatemala City 1965. Washington: Pan American Institute of Geography and History, 1969.
  • Fischer, Irene. The Development of the South American Datum 1969 (70-290). 1970. Papers from the 30th annual meeting [of the] American congress on surveying and mapping, ...1970.
  • Fischer, Irene. New Pieces in the Picture Puzzle of an Astrogeodetic Geoid Map of the World. [Washington, D.C.]: U.S. Dept. of the Army, Corps of Engineers, Topographic Command, 1969. Presented to XI Pan American consultation on cartography, Pan American Institute of Geography and History, Washington, D.C., 1969.
  • United States, and Irene Fischer. New Pieces in the Picture Puzzle of an Astrogeodetic Geoid Map of the World. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Army, Corps of Engineers, Topographic Command, 1969.
  • Fischer, Irene. Investigations Concerning the Astrogeodetic Determination of the Geoid on a Common Datum, Combined with Gravimetric and Satellite Interpolations. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of the Army, Corps of Engineers, Topographic Command, 1969. "Presented to XI Pan American American Consultation on Cartography, Pan American Institute of Geography and History, Washington, D.C., 1969." Summary in Spanish.
  • Fischer, Irene. Investigations Concerning the Astrogeodetic Determination of the Geoid on a Common Datum: Combined with Gravimetric and Satellite Interpolations : Paper Presented to XIVth General Assembly of the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics, Lucerne 1967. Washington, D.C: Pan American Institute of Geography and History, 1969.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1968. Modification of the Mercury Datum. Military Engineer. Volume 61, number 401, pages 191-193.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1968. GEOID DETERMINATIONS. ARMY MAP SERVICE WASHINGTON DC. Publisher: Ft. Belvoir Defense Technical Information Center JAN 1968. Edition/Format: Book : English [1]
  • Fischer, Irene. 1968, A modification of the Mercury datum. United States. Army Map Service. Publisher: Washington: Army Map Service, 1968. Series: United States.; Army Map Service.; Technical report.
  • Fischer, Irene. From Pythagoras to a Modification of the Mercury Datum (Fischer 1968). Washington, D.C: Army Map Service, 1968.
  • Fischer, Irene, Mary Slutsky, F. R. Shirley, and P. Y. Wyatt. 1968. "New Pieces in the Picture Puzzle of an Astrogeodetic Geoid Map of the World". Bulletin Géodésique. 88, no. 1: 199-221.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1967. "Geoid charts of North and Central America." United States. Army Map Service.; et al. Washington, 1967. Series: United States.; Army Map Service.; Technical report. Abstract: The North American geoid map constructed by the Army Map Service in 1957 has been revised to accommodate accumulated new data. The procedure for constructing these three maps and the differences between them are explained. [2]
  • Fischer, Irene. 1967. Deviations of the geoid from an equilibrium figure: presented to the special study group no. 16 of section 5 of the international association of geodesy, Vienna ... 1967.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1966. "Gravimetric interpolation of deflections of the vertical by electronic computer". Bulletin Géodésique. 81 (1): 267-275.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1966. "Slopes and Curvatures of the Geoid from Gravity Anomalies by Electronic Computer". Journal of Geophysical Research. 71 (20): 4909.
  • Fischer, Irene, Ray Shirley, and Philip Wyatt. 1966. "A Geoid Profile in North America from a Combination of Astrogeodetic and Gravimetric Data". Journal of Geophysical Research. 71 (20): 4917.
  • Fischer, Irene, and Mary Slutsky. 1966. Un estudio del geoide en Sud America. Pan American Institute of Geography and History.; Publicación no. 293 de la Comisión de cartografía.; Publicación (Pan American Institute of Geography and History), no. 293. "Separata de la Revista cartográfica no. 14, año 14, 1965."
  • Fischer, Irene. 1966. "A Reviosion of the GOID Map of North America." Journal of Geophysical Research (JGR). Volume 71, number 20, pages 4905-4908.
  • Fischer, Irene and Mary Slutsky. 1965. "A study of the geoid in South America." Army Map Service.; Pan American Institute of Geography and History. Washington, D.C.: The Service, [1965]. Irene Fischer, Mary Slutsky ; presented to X Pan American Consultation of Cartography, Pan American Institute of Geography and History, Guatemala City, Guatemala, 1965 ; by Corps of Engineers, Army Map Service.
  • Fischer, Irene, and Dunstan Hayden. 1965. Geometry. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. And: Geometry. Teachers' supplement. and Geometry. Answer book. Allyn and Bacon. For Grades 9-12. by Irene Fischer and Dunstan Hayden.
  • Fischer, Irene and Mary Slutsky. 1964. "Conversion graphs for an astrogeodetic world datum." United States. Army Map Service. Washington: Corps of Engineers, U.S. Army, Army Map Service, 1964. Series: United States.; Army Map Service.; Technical report. Cover title. Folded maps in pocket downgraded from confidential 11-5-65. Description: 17 pages: 3 fold. maps ; 27 cm.
  • Wilson, Donna. 1963. "Notes of Working Symposium on Solar System Constants, Feb 22-26, 1962." Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, CA. May 1963. 79 pages. Dr. Fischer added comments and notes.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1963. "The distance to the moon." Philosophical Society of Washington (Washington, D.C.). Published by the co-operation of the Smithsonian Institution, 1963. Series: Bulletin of the Philosophical Society of Washington, Vol. 16, no. 2.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1962. THE PARALLAX OF THE MOON IN TERMS OF A WORLD GEODETIC SYSTEM. ARMY MAP SERVICE WASHINGTON D C. Publisher: Ft. Belvoir Defense Technical Information Center AUG 1962. DTIC Report Number: ADAAD0602535. Contents: The transit observations of mosting A, The geodetically computed distance between the observatories, Hansen's value of mean parallax, The geometric parallax as referred to the astrogeodetic world datum, The dynamical parallax, The lunar distance from occultations, The lunar distance from radar measurements.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1962. "The Parallax of the Moon in Terms of a World Geodetic System." Astronomical Journal. Volume 67, number 6, pages 373-378.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1962. Die gegenwärtige Ausdehnung des astronomisch-geodätisch bestimmten Geoids und das davon abgeleitete geodätische Weltdatum: Übers. von L. Kolb. Aus: Bulletin géodésique, 61, 1961, S.245-264. - EST: The present extent of the astro-geodetic geoid and the geodetic world datum derived from it (dt.).
  • Fischer, Irene. 1961. "The Present Extent of the Astro-Geodetic Geoid and the Geoid World Datum Derived from it." Bulletin Geodesique. New Series, number 61, September 1, 1961.
  • . Fischer, Irene. 1960. "A Map of Geoidal Contours in North America." Bulletin Geodesique. Number 56, 1960.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1960. "An Astrogeodetic World Datum from Geoidal Heights Based on the Flattening f = 1/298.3". Journal of Geophysical Research. 65 (7).
  • Fischer, Irene. 1959. "The Impact of the Ice Age on the Present Form of the Geoid". Journal of Geophysical Research. 64 (1): 85-87.
  • Kaula, W. M. and Irene Fischer. 1959. US Army World Geodetic System 1959, Part I, Methods. Army Map Service Technical Reports 27. November 1959.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1959. "A Tentative World Datum from Geoidal Heights Based on the Hough Ellipsoid and the Columbus Geoid". Journal of Geophysical Research. 64 (1): 73-84.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1958. A TENTATIVE WORLD DATUM FROM GEOIDAL HEIGHTS. ARMY MAP SERVICE WASHINGTON D C. Publisher: Ft. Belvoir Defense Technical Information Center JUN 1958.
  • Fischer, Irene. 1954. "The deflection of the vertical in the Western and Central Mediterranean area". Bulletin Géodésique. 34 (1): 343-353.

Other sources

  • Obituary in Eos, Transactions American Geophysical Union, Volume 91, Issue 19
Uses material from the Wikipedia article Irene Fischer, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.