While Irene Fischer’s work life was spent mostly in a government research office, her accomplishments and legacy reach much farther.
Throughout her work and personal life, Fischer’s quest for understanding the size and shape of the Earth, fundamentals of geodesy, made her a pioneer for women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
Austrian-born Fischer studied mathematics at the University of Vienna, and received extensive training in descriptive geometry, geography and natural sciences. After graduating, Fischer married, and the Fischer family founded the first professional kindergarten and kindergarten training school in Vienna.
When Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, Fischer fled Nazi Austria with her family and lived in Boston for several years. She eventually settled in Potomac, Maryland.
In Boston, Fischer worked with staff at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She helped grade student tests before working with an MIT professor on stereoscopic projective geometry trajectories. She later taught mathematics at prep schools in Cambridge and Washington, D.C.
Fischer left the workforce to stay home with her children. Many years later, when her daughter was preparing to go to college, she decided to put her years of education and training back to good use.
After expressing interest in a job with the U.S. Navy, Fischer’s husband Eric, who worked at the Army Map Service protested.
“You are not going to work for the Navy when I am working for the Army at the AMS,” said Eric, upholding the long-standing rivalry between the Army and Navy.
Eric took his wife’s résumé and background papers to John O’Keefe, chief of the analysis branch in geodesy at AMS. Geodesy – what’s that? It’s the science of accurately measuring and understanding earth’s geometric shape, its orientation in space and its gravity field; and it’s Fischer’s life-long passion to discover and be trained in all aspects of it.
Fischer began her 25-year federal career at the Army Map Service, a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency legacy organization, in August 1952. During her time at AMS, Fischer was instrumental in developing what became the World Geodetic System, a standard for use in cartography, geodesy and navigation including GPS.
It comprises a standard coordinate system for the Earth, a standard spheroidal reference surface for raw altitude data, and a gravitational equipotential surface that defines the nominal sea level.
Fischer became internationally recognized, one of only two women in the field of geodesy, during the Mercury and Apollo moon missions. Her Mercury Datum, or Fischer Ellipsoid 1960 and 1968, and her work on the lunar parallax, were paramount to conducting these missions.
Fischer was a pioneer during a time when there were few women in surveying. Fischer was the first AMS employee, and only the third woman ever in government service, to receive the Distinguished Civilian Service Award for her work.
The Distinguished Civilian Service Award is the highest honor given to a career civilian employee. The secretary of defense presented her with the award in 1967.
Fischer published a high school geometry textbook in 1965, continuing her passion for being an educator. After retiring in 1975, she wrote a memoir of her scientific career, discussing being a woman, doing science in a male-dominated, government bureaucracy.
Fischer also wrote more than 120 technical reports, articles and books in her fields of expertise, and many of her significant government reports are still used today.
It was, in the end, Fischer’s government work - her public servitude in the field that she loved, that had one of the greatest impacts on her life journey.
In her Geodesy – What’s that? autobiography she wrote, “My story is meant as a tribute to the many souls at all levels who made my government service such an interesting and satisfying experience as I watched the ‘big wheels go around me in circles.’”