In Memoriam Vera Pless

Vera Pless, noted coding theorist, passed away peacefully in her home March 2, 2020.

Vera Stepen was born on March 5, 1931 on Chicago's west side to a Russian Jewish immigrant family. As a teenager, she was more interested in playing the cello than in mathematics, but she left high school two years early to go to the University of Chicago, and finished her studies there in three years.
Inspired by Irving Kaplansky to study abstract algebra, she stayed at the university for a master's degree, which she earned in 1952 not long after marrying her husband, a high-energy experimental physicist.
She began working in physics at the University of Chicago, but soon won a fellowship to study at Northwestern University. Her husband became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Pless moved with him to Massachusetts, where she completed her doctorate from Northwestern in 1957 under the supervision of Kaplansky's student Alex F. T. W. Rosenberg, with the Dissertation: Quotient Rings of Continuous Transformation Rings.

Pless was one of the world’s top experts in the field of error correcting codes. She began her career in 1963 at the Air Force Cambridge Research Laboratory (AFCRL) in Massachusetts. During this time, she helped to found and later became president of the organization Women in Science and Engineering.  In 1972, she became a research associate at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She returned to Chicago in 1975 to serve as a full professor of Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science (MSCS) in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences where she taught from 1975 until her retirement in 2006, at which point she was name Professor Emerita.

According to the Mathematics Genealogy Project, she has 11 students: 
Jenson, RichardUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1977
Bergstrand, DeborahUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1980
Grace, ThomasUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1982
Job, VanessaUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1989
Hou, Xiang-DongUniversity of Illinois at Chicago19901
Nemoyer, JesseUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1993
Monroe, LauraUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1995
Qian, ZhongqiangUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1996
Fields, JosephUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1999
Harrison, LeeUniversity of Illinois at Chicago1999
Kim, Jon-LarkUniversity of Illinois at Chicago20022

Pless authored over 120 peer-reviewed journal publications, several books and was a strong supporter of women’s rights and other anti-discrimination causes.  She is remembered for her teaching expertise, sense of humor, and enthusiasm for theater and music. As recalled by Janet Beissinger, research associate professor emerita of MSCS, “She was quite an inspiration on how to get the most out of life.”

A resident of Oak Park, Pless is survived by her three children, Naomi, Ben and Daniel, and her four grandchildren, Lilah, Evie, Rebecca and Jesse. 

Memorial remembrances may be made to Family Justice Resource Center (


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