Written by Debby Repka (Lecturer at University of Toronto)
Harriet Botta, Professor of Mathematics at York University, died on June 23, 2016. She was the wife of the late Peter Botta, Undergraduate Coordinator in the Mathematics Department for many years. Harriet’s high intelligence and gift for mathematics made her unique. There were very few women of her generation who had the courage to pursue this subject; in fact, women were directed away from the sciences. Harriet faced great adversity as she entered the job market. She was told by the then Chair of the Department at the University of Toronto that she shouldn’t apply for a position here because she would be taking a job away from a male who had to support a family. Despite her disappointment, she persevered and eventually was hired by York University. No department chair today would dare turn away a talented woman scientist, and this is thanks in part to the determination of Harriet and a few other female pioneers to remain academic mathematicians.
Harriet had a special relationship with her husband Peter. Finding a soulmate was not an easy task given the prejudice of most men of her generation against smart women. Peter was progressive beyond his time and wished to share his life with someone who could appreciate his scientific interests. Together they had a rich intellectual life, engaging in lively discussions on a wide range of topics. They were generous in these explorations, opening their home to all those who wanted to join in. Both Peter and Harriet were avid readers, so they had a broad perspective on many issues, challenging friends to think beyond their preconceptions. Often these conversations took place around the dining room table, while Peter served rarefied treats like blini and caviar and, on other occasions, heartier fare like the sausages and flapjacks of the lumberjack breakfasts of his youth.
Harriet deeply appreciated Peter’s achievement of moulding the members of the administrative staff in the Department into a family. With his encouragement, they established harmonious relationships that extended beyond the office, and their long-lasting friendships will endure into the future. Because of the spirit of cooperation and the dedication that Peter fostered, he was able to bring about important innovations in the undergraduate mathematics program. To honour his legacy, Harriet established a fund that, each year, treats the administrative staff to lunch in an elegant restaurant. Her thoughtful gift makes a continuing vital contribution to the Department. She will also be remembered by her many friends among the faculty.
What her friends and colleagues will recall most about Harriet is that she was a true lady. She was raised in an era in which good manners were inculcated in young people, and she never abandoned her high standards. While the society around her became more and more crass, she retained an air of refinement and sophistication. Even towards the end of her life, when her physical suffering was great, she never lost her dignity. To quote Plutarch: “The generous mind adds dignity to every act, and nothing misbecomes it.”