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Zipporah Levinson, Department of Mathematics’ ‘den mother,’ dies at age 93

The wife of the late Institute Professor Norman Levinson opened her home to many of the department’s mathematicians
Zipporah "Fagi" Levinson, the Department of Mathematics' 'den mother'
Zipporah "Fagi" Levinson, the Department of Mathematics' 'den mother'

Zipporah “Fagi” Levinson, the wife of the late Institute Professor Norman Levinson ’34, SM ’34, SCD ’35, died on Dec. 11, 2009, at the age of 93 after numerous strokes and pneumonia.

In the book Recountings: Conversations with MIT Mathematicians, editor Joel Segel described Levinson as “the unquestioned ‘den mother’” for decades to the likes of Norbert Weiner and John Nash,” and “a vibrant and irreplaceable part of the Mathematics Department’s institutional memory and perhaps the person best qualified to put a human face on the period when the department was coming into its own as a full-fledged research entity.”

Levinson was particularly effective as the moral and social historian of the department, and was frequently called upon to remind them of the Institute’s history, including its anti-Semitism and sexism, and how it had overcome them.

Levinson was born in 1916 in what she described as a tough Jewish ghetto in Brooklyn, the daughter of a dentist and dental technician. She was educated at City College of New York and was awarded her masters in education by Columbia. In 1938 she met Norman Levinson, who was then a young instructor in the MIT Department of Mathematics, and he proposed to her two days later. They married after knowing each other for only a week, and the department acknowledged the wedding by presenting her with a copy of Calculus Made Easy, signed by all members of the faculty.

Levinson often opened up her house to other mathematicians, providing a congenial and supportive environment, which was greatly appreciated by the rapidly expanding department. After her husband became head of the department and an Institute Professor, Fagi continued to act as the department’s social glue. After his death in 1975, she remained an active participant in the social life of several generations of the department, ultimately becoming the department’s oral historian.

She spent the last nine years of her life at Lasell Village in Newton. Until shortly before her death she stayed in touch with numerous friends from the mathematical world. She is survived by two daughters, Sylvia and Joan (Zorza) ’62, four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. 

Donations may be made to MIT noting they are in memory of Fagi Levinson (and/or Norman Levinson) and sent to Bonny Kellermann, MIT director of memorial gifts, 600 Memorial Drive, Room W98-516, Cambridge, MA 02139. Donations will fund opportunities for undergraduate research in applied mathematics.

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