Irene K. Fischer; measured earth; at 102

By J.M. Lawrence
Globe Correspondent / October 28, 2009

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Irene K. Fischer fled Nazi Austria in 1939 and became an internationally known geodesist who spent her career measuring the earth for the US government.

Mrs. Fischer, who died Thursday at age 102 at Heritage at Cleveland Circle retirement center in Brighton, found her profession by chance.

By 1952, her son was in grade school, and Mrs. Fischer interviewed with the Army Map Service in Washington, where supervisors explained their goal of determining the size and shape of the earth.

“Wasn’t I taught that in grade school already? How come they don’t know?’’ Mrs. Fischer thought, according to her 2005 memoir, “Geodesy? What’s That? My Personal Involvement in the Age-Old Quest for the Size and Shape of the Earth.’’

Her first supervisor, Bernard Chovitz, remembered her as an extremely intelligent and determined scientist who struggled against bureaucracy, sexism, and Cold War-era security concerns. She spent 25 years in the geodesy branch and worked her way up to division chief.

“She was, I would say, indefatigable,’’ said Chovitz, who still lives in Washington. “She didn’t give in easily.’’

Her most prominent work, known as the Fischer Ellipsoid 1960 and its 1968 update, improved the World Geodetic System, which is the standard coordinates framework used for the planet. She worked on more than 120 scientific publications.

Among her accolades, she was inducted into the National Imaging and Mapping Hall of Fame and was a member of the National Academy of Engineering.

In 1931, she married Eric Fischer, a geographer and historian, whose family founded the Vienna Kinderbewahranstallt, the first professional kindergarten and school for kindergarten teacher training in the city.

After Kristallnacht, the murderous Nazi pogrom of November 1938, Mrs. Fischer and her husband escaped Austria with her daughter Gay, eventually settling in Boston in 1941.

Though she was a highly trained mathematician, Mrs. Fischer at first took work as an assistant to a seamstress and later graded blue books for professors at Harvard and MIT, her family said.

She also taught math at what was then called Brown & Nichols Preparatory School in Cambridge before the family moved to New York and later to Washington, where her husband worked as a geographer for the Office of Strategic Services. He worked in the same building as his wife.

Mrs. Fischer and her husband, who died in the 1980s, were extremely close during their 54 years of marriage, her son Michael said.

“People used to joke at the Army Map Service that they spent every lunch together and walked arm in arm,’’ said Michael, a professor of anthropology and science and technology studies at MIT. “They were totally devoted to each other.’’

She retired in 1975 and later moved to Rockville, Md.

In 2001, she moved to a retirement community just three blocks from the Brighton home where she had first lived after fleeing the Nazis.

Her family celebrated her 100th birthday in 2007 with a program about her life for the residents.

In addition to her son and daughter Gay of Oberlin, Ohio, Mrs. Fischer leaves several nieces and nephews.

Services have been held. Burial was in Mount Lebanon Cemetery in Washington, D.C.