The XX Factor

Why I Love Obits

Today’s New York Times has an amazing obituary of Gertrude Neumark Rothschild, 83, a professor of materials science and engineering at Columbia, who helped perfect LED technology. These are the light-emitting and laser diodes that are ubiquitious in everything from DVD players to traffic lights. It would be enough to imagine the struggles a female engineer of her era must have encountered to be impressed with Rothschild. But the details of her life stun you with the endurance, brilliance, and tenacity of this woman. For starters, she was a Holocaust survivor. Her parents escaped from Nuremberg, Germany in 1935 when she was a girl. I’ve read a number of obituaries recently of people who fled Europe as children-mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot is one. It brings home that we are now losing the last of those who survived. The obits of the brilliant people who made it out are a reminder of all the discoveries that were never made, the inventions that were not created because of the mass murder of the 20 th century.

Rothschild got a doctorate in chemistry in 1951 and worked in both industry and academia. During her corporate years she started doing semiconductor research, which helped lead to wide applications for her technologies. Then, at the end of her life, Rothschild sued dozens of  companies for patent infringement.  The Times says the lawsuits were seen as quixotic-but she won, garnering almost $30 million from the companies. “I just want recognition for the work that I did, and I want to show that women can do science,” she said.  Philips Electronics, who she successfully sued, created a professorship at Columbia in her honor. What a life. What a woman.