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Senior Women Web Interviews: Cécile DeWitt-Morette

by Emily Mitchell

Some women choose a career, while others appear born to it, and some women simply have it thrust upon them. That, more or less, is what happened to Ccile DeWitt-Morette, 78, who has earned a place among the most respected and honored scientists of the 20th century.

Her native France has bestowed awards on her, and so have international scientific organizations. She has a remarkable number of publications to her credit---she has written 95 articles and four books and edited 19 books --and her enduring accomplishment was the establishment 50 years ago of Les Houches Summer School in the French Alps, an institution that attracts research scientists from around the globe. Hers has been a lengthy and distinguished career, and it is not the one she originally intended. She is almost an accidental physicist, for as she explained to Senior Women Web in a telephone interview, "I became a physicist because of circumstances. I began to really like it only after I got a Ph.D.''

When she was growing up in middle-class comfort in Normandy, Ccile Morette pinned her hopes on medical school. "I wanted to be a surgeon,'' she says, envisioning herself as a humanitarian physician not disappearing right after the operation but giving her patients attention and care through their recovery. After high school, however, her mother suggested she study mathematics in college--treating it, DeWitt-Morette says, like a finishing school, ''for cultural purposes and logical thinking.'' Once she had a few credits, Ccile thought she might as well go ahead and get the degree. She did so, and then decided "to go to Paris to have adventures.''

The country was then under Nazi occupation, and the French were not allowed to travel without a permit. How to explain to a German officer a reason for trips to Paris? "I could not say, 'For adventures' because it would have the wrong connotation,'' she says, "so my excuse was that I was taking advanced courses.'' She was in the midst of an exam in Paris when tragedy struck. It was D-Day, and in the bombing of Caen, the family home was destroyed and Ccile's sister, mother and grandmother were killed. "I now felt in charge of my family,'' she says, "so I thought I had better get a job.'' At 21, she no longer felt young.

After advance courses and laboratory work in France, and later in Dublin and Copenhagen, she was invited in 1948 to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., by J. Robert Oppenheimer. While she was there she met the physicist Bryce DeWitt, who soon became her husband. (Their 50th anniversary is this May.) The young woman was torn by the idea of accepting a marriage proposal from an American and forsaking her country, and she was also deeply concerned about the diminished state of scientific research and education in France following the war's devastation. Her solution was the establishment of Les Houches, which offered her the opportunity to make a contribution toward re-establishing France as an important center for science. According to her daughter Chris DeWitt, this was the most of the important aspect of the project, although it also gave her the chance to spend several months in France each year.

To gain support from male colleagues for Les Houches, DeWitt-Morette made them think the proposal was their own. She would describe the plan to them and then phone a week later to say, "Oh, that idea you told me about was great.'' Remembering those days now, she says with a laugh, "I was an intellectual geisha.''

She likes to tell one story about how she managed to snare an appointment with a hard-to-see government minister. She went to the building where he worked, removed her coat and hat--this was a time when a woman would never been seen without a hat--so she could walk around freely and everyone would think she was just another secretary. Waiting until the minister's own secretary had gone to lunch, she slipped into his office and asked if she could make an appointment. She got it, as well as enough money to fund one summer session. "I couldn't pay my lecturers well,'' she says, 'but the school was in the mountains and I knew that instead of money I could give them a cottage for their whole family that would be better than money. " With their families happily settled, they could give lectures and have discussions with participants to their heart's content.''

The plan worked admirably. Les Houches, which she headed for 22 years since founding it in 1951and still serves on the board of directors, plays an important role in theoretical physics. A Swedish student named Marcus Berg, who is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, attended in 1998 and believes the school is "unique in that it has long sessions during which participants can really learn something new, without the stress of an all-too-short conference." A surprising number of physicists are into mountain hiking, and the combination of strenuous physical activity, fresh mountain air and breathtaking views of the Alps is useful to physicists because it is such a contrast to sitting at a table doing calculations.'' Twenty-four participants who went to Les Houches as students or young lecturers afterward received Nobel Prizes.

Three recent French Nobel laureates--Pierre-Gilles de Gennes, Georges Charpak and Claude Cohen-Tannoudji--were students at Les Houches in the '50s and credit the school as a factor in their successful careers. Alain Connes, a recipient of the Fields Medal--it's the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics--and one of the world's greatest living mathematicians, has said that "my scientific life began at Les Houches."

As a girl going to an all-female school, Mlle. Morette had not experienced discrimination, nor did she find many obstacles to her career during the first years in America. The roadblocks appeared after she married. First, there was the complication of her name. She tried using her husband's surname only to discover he was given credit for her own work. (Eventually she settled on DeWitt-Morette.) Far worse was institutional discrimination, something many women before and since have faced. "In an important period professionally, I had no position because I was married,'' she says. In 1956 she and her husband became visiting research professors at the University of North Carolina; he was later made a full tenured professor. According to Bryce DeWitt, the school, citing "legally non-existent'' regulations against nepotism, demoted her in 1967 to the post of lecturer despite her contributions in attracting funds, organizing conferences and serving as director of the school's Institute of Natural Sciences.

Once again, fate intervened. The chairman of the physics department at the University of Texas had been a student at Les Houches, and he asked both husband and wife to join the faculty. DeWitt-Morette began lecturing in the astronomy department in 1972. Its chairman was delighted to have a physicist, she recalls, and "I moved into physics little by little and now my work is completely in physics.'' After more than 25 years in academe, she became professor of physics in 1983.

To students, her immense knowledge and extensive writings can be inspiring and somewhat intimidating. Marcus Berg remembers when he first took the class based on selected topics from the two-volume "Analysis, Manifolds, and Physics'' that she co-authored with French mathematician Yvonne Choquet-Bruhart. It contains more than 1,000 pages of concise mathematical physics, and Berg says, "Over time, I overcame the nave impression that Ccile holds every one of the thousands of formulas in her head. Still, I am convinced that she understands every formula in that book--in itself an almost superhuman feat.'' He thinks of her as " the grandmother of my generation of physicists and, as a Ph.D. supervisor, the academic mother of more than 20. As a researcher, she does as much ground work as any of us graduate students, so in this respect, she is a sister physicist.''

She passes along to her students something she learned early on: the value of diplomacy. It isn't part of the scientific curriculum, of course, and says Berg, "it may be unrelated to physics as a subject, but it is certainly not unrelated to physics as a career. Ccile knows exactly when to complain, when to demand, when to agree, and how to express any of these actions, in speech or in writing.'' Unlike many other professors supervising Ph.D. candidates, she likes for her students to spend a year outside the U.S. At her encouragement, Berg studied for a year in Paris and was there when she became a member of the French Legion of Honor. "I chatted with Ccile before,'' he recalls, "and she seemed happy and relaxed, but then suddenly furrowed her brow. For a second, I thought maybe she was a little nervous about the formality of the ceremony, but then she said, 'If I were your mother--which I am not--I would do this.' " The diminutive professor reached up with both arms and resolutely straightened his collar.

She does have the maternal touch, but to her four daughters, DeWitt-Morette has never been a typical Mom. When three of them turned eleven, their mother arranged for them to spend a year living with a family in another country (Japan, Peru, Chile). Two of the sisters are now lawyers, and one is the writer Abigail DeWitt, who used some of the circumstances of her mother's life in France in her novel "Lili"(reviewed in SeniorWomen's Aug., 11, 2000 Culture Watch) DeWitt-Morette says of her daughters, "I gave them a lot of respect and dignity. I am proud of them, but I don't take credit.''

Every summer when the children were young, the whole family went off to France, and she and her husband still go, staying in the house in the Pyrenees they remodeled. Chris DeWitt describes her mother--who dresses simply and never wears makeup--as "completely unpretentious, treating secretaries and custodians with the same respect she would a Nobel laureate colleague.''

She never liked to shop or to cook ("You work for hours, and it is all over in half-an hour!''), but sewing, and especially darning, are favorite occupations. She offers a deal to friends when she visits, she jokes, presenting herself as a kind of traveling seamstress. "Make a pile of things that needs mending or sewing," she instructs, "and I will work on that and you don't have to entertain me.''

At present, she is president of Planned Living Assistance Network, an organization that helps families who find themselves no longer able to care for their children afflicted with mental illness. One of her daughters has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and says her mother simply, "It is easier for me to help her by helping a lot of people.''

Over the years she has taken up judo (she holds a brown belt) windsurfing, skiing and hiking, and since her school days, when she would complete the weekly assignment on the day it was given, the energetic scholar has made it a habit to finish a task long before its deadline. "I schedule my life,'' she says firmly. "Some friends say I have a little clock, inside me and am too dictated by it.'' That may be, but it is her finely tuned inner timepiece that has made it possible to balance family life with a career as writer, researcher and teacher and to inspire generations of scientists. A surgeon could not have done more.


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