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Dr. Charlotte Froese, UBC Professor of Mathematics pictured circa 1963, taught the first Computer Science classes at the university.UBC Historical Photography Colle/Handout

In the mid-1950s, Cambridge, England, was full of young and keen science-minded people; the structure of DNA had been discovered there just a couple of years earlier. But even in that world of intense enthusiasm for science, few were as devoted as Charlotte Froese (later Dr. Charlotte Froese Fischer). Late in the evening, when most residents had finished their dinners and were winding down for the day, Ms. Froese could be seen on her bicycle, hurtling along the city’s narrow streets, heading to the university’s still-new computer lab to pursue her investigations of atomic structure.

“In the evening, the professors would have first crack at using the computer for their calculations, and then the grad students could use it in the wee hours of the night,” said Dr. Fischer’s daughter, Dr. Carolyn Fischer, recalling stories her mother had told her over the years. “Everything was very formal in those days; everyone wore their robes. So she’d be cycling back and forth to the lab at night in her flowing black robe.”

That dedication continued for more than six decades. Dr. Fischer, who died in February at the age of 94, is remembered for her pioneering work in the use of numerical methods in the study of atomic structure, for publishing more than 300 papers and two highly regarded textbooks, and for nurturing a bevy of young scientists whom she considered family.

In 2016 Dr. Fischer was elected to the Royal Society of Canada, the nation’s highest academic honour in the sciences, humanities and arts.

Dr. Fischer will be remembered particularly at the University of British Columbia, where she earned her first degrees and where she later taught for more than a decade, while helping to establish the university’s computer science department.

“She was the first lady of computational atomic structure theory,” said Dr. Yuri Ralchenko, a physicist who worked with Dr. Fischer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Md., in the early 2000s. “Charlotte excelled at all levels” and worked so hard that “not even youngsters” could keep up, he said.

Charlotte Froese was born on Sept. 21, 1929, in Nikolayevka, a Mennonite village in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, to Johann Froese and Helena Thiessen. She was six weeks old when her family left for Germany, via Moscow, catching the last train that was allowed to leave the Soviet Union before the border was closed at the end of that year. After a brief stay in a refugee camp in Germany, they received paperwork allowing them to move to Canada. The family spent several years on a farm in Saskatchewan before settling near Chilliwack in British Columbia’s Fraser Valley.

“I do remember the poverty,” Dr. Fischer told an audience at Western University in London, Ont., when she was awarded an honorary doctorate from the university in 2018. “The only book in our family was the Bible. Going to school opened a whole new world to me.”

Dr. Fischer earned a bachelor’s degree with honours in mathematics and chemistry from UBC in 1952, and then an MA in applied chemistry, also from UBC, two years later.

“She was very grateful to Canada for the opportunities that she had,” recalled Dr. Carolyn Fischer, an economist at the World Bank in Washington. “She felt that made a huge difference in her life and her career.”

In Cambridge, Dr. Charlotte Fischer’s PhD supervisor was Douglas Hartree, known for the Hartree-Fock method, which allowed scientists to determine the properties of complex atomic systems made up of nuclei and electrons. Dr. Fischer extended the Hartree-Fock method so it could be used to investigate even more complicated systems in which an atom’s electrons interacted with one another.

Dr. Fischer was a faculty member at UBC from 1957 to 1968, where she took a position in the mathematics department and introduced computer courses into the curriculum. In 1963 she was the first woman to be awarded an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Research Fellowship.

Dr. Fischer’s work had an impact on many different scientific fields, including spectroscopy, plasma physics, microelectronics and astrophysics, as well as biomedical and environmental sciences, said Michel Godefroid, a chemist who recently retired from the Université Libre de Bruxelles and who collaborated with Dr. Fischer for many years, beginning in the 1970s. Devices such as lasers, atomic clocks, GPS systems and quantum computers all depend on the kinds of atomic structure calculations that Dr. Fischer specialized in, he said. “Her legacy in atomic physics is gigantic.”

In 1967, she married mathematician Patrick C. Fischer. “They exchanged very sweet letters, with love messages encoded in equations,” Dr. Carolyn Fischer said. The couple lived for a year in Vancouver before taking up positions at the University of Waterloo, in Ontario, which was rapidly expanding its computer science program. Later they moved to Pennsylvania State University and eventually to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Dr. Fischer also worked for a time at the Harvard College Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., and at Boeing, near Seattle.

While in Waterloo, the couple’s only child, Carolyn, was born. While Carolyn shared her parents’ love of learning, she notes that her research interests diverged from her mother’s.

“I had a hard time understanding her research, and she had a hard time understanding mine,” Dr. Carolyn Fischer said.

Meanwhile, her mother’s dedication to her work continued full-force. Long before personal computers became commonplace, Dr. Fischer had a desk-style terminal in the family home that allowed her to connect to the university’s mainframe computer. “She’d start dinner, and then go and work on some of her code, forgetting about pots on the stove,” Dr. Carolyn Fischer recalled. “She melted a couple of pots that way.”

Dr. Fischer was at the top of her field at a time when there were very few women in physics or computer science. Dr. Godefroid recalls that in some labs, “women were not welcome, even if they were very good at science.” The bias even spilled over to affect men who chose to work under the supervision of a woman. Dr. Godefroid remembers the reaction that he sometimes got, when he said he intended to work with Dr. Fischer. “People would say, ‘Are you kidding?’ I understood later that that was just because she was a woman.”

Dr. Fischer wrote two influential textbooks, The Hartree-Fock Method for Atoms, and, with co-authors Per Jönsson and Tomas Brage, Computational Atomic Structure: An MCHF Approach. She also wrote a scientific biography of her PhD supervisor, Dr. Hartree. She was elected Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1991.

“Charlotte was always very willing to share her knowledge,” said Dr. Jönsson, a mathematician at Malmö University in Sweden who worked with Dr. Fischer at Vanderbilt. He notes that Dr. Fischer kept in close contact with many of her postdocs and collaborators over the years, creating a close-knit “family” of like-minded researchers. “Being part of this network, being a part of Charlotte’s family, was something we valued.”

Dr. Fischer died on Feb. 8 at her home in Maryland following a brief illness. She leaves her daughter, Carolyn Fischer, and three brothers, David Froese, Elmer Froese and Edgar Froese. Her husband, Dr. Patrick Fischer, died in 2011 at the age of 75.

In her later years, Dr. Fischer established scholarships or fellowships at UBC, the University of Ottawa, the University of Toronto, and, with her husband, at Vanderbilt University.

“Charlotte worked hard, but she was also kind, with a lot of humour,” Dr. Jönsson said. “She showed us that science should be fun.”

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