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Five Historic Female Mathematicians You Should Know

Albert Einstein called Emmy Noether a "creative mathematical genius"

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Sofia Kovalevskaya, Emmy Noether and Ada Lovelace are just three of the many famous female mathematicians you should know. (Wikicommons)

If you haven’t yet read my story “Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know,” please check it out. It’s not a complete list, I know, but that’s what happens when you can pick only ten women to highlight—you start making arbitrary decisions (no living scientists, no mathematicians) and interesting stories get left out. To make up a bit for that, and in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, here are five more brilliant and dedicated women I left off the list:

Hypatia (ca. 350 or 370 – 415 or 416)

No one can know who was the first female mathematician, but Hypatia was certainly one of the earliest. She was the daughter of Theon, the last known member of the famed library of Alexandria, and followed his footsteps in the study of math and astronomy. She collaborated with her father on commentaries of classical mathematical works, translating them and incorporating explanatory notes, as well as creating commentaries of her own and teaching a succession of students from her home. Hypatia was also a philosopher, a follower of Neoplatonism, a belief system in which everything emanates from the One, and crowds listened to her public lectures about Plato and Aristotle. Her popularity was her downfall, however. She became a convenient scapegoat in a political battle between her friend Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, and the city’s archbishop, Cyril, and was killed by a mob of Christian zealots.

Sophie Germain (1776 – 1831)

When Paris exploded with revolution, young Sophie Germain retreated to her father’s study and began reading. After learning about the death of Archimedes, she began a lifelong study of mathematics and geometry, even teaching herself Latin and Greek so that she could read classic works. Unable to study at the École Polytechnique because she was female, Germain obtained lecture notes and submitted papers to Joseph Lagrange, a faculty member, under a false name. When he learned she was a woman, he became a mentor and Germain soon began corresponding with other prominent mathematicians at the time. Her work was hampered by her lack of formal training and access to resources that male mathematicians had at the time. But she became the first woman to win a prize from the French Academy of Sciences, for work on a theory of elasticity, and her proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem, though unsuccessful, was used as a foundation for work on the subject well into the twentieth century.

Ada Lovelace (1815 – 1852)

Augusta Ada Byron (later Countess of Lovelace) never knew her father, the poet Lord Byron, who left England due to a scandal shortly after her birth. Her overprotective mother, wanting to daughter to grown up as unemotional—and unlike her father—as possible, encouraged her study of science and mathematics. As an adult, Lovelace began to correspond with the inventor and mathematician Charles Babbage, who asked her to translate an Italian mathematician’s memoir analyzing his Analytical Engine (a machine that would perform simple mathematical calculations and be programmed with punchcards and is considered one of the first computers). Lovelace went beyond completing a simple translation, however, and wrote her own set of notes about the machine and even included a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers; this is now acknowledged as the world’s first computer program.

Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850 – 1891)

Because Russian women could not attend university, Sofia Vasilyevna contracted a marriage with a young paleontologist, Vladimir Kovalevsky, and they moved to Germany. There she could not attend university lectures, but she was tutored privately and eventually received a doctorate after writing treatises on partial differential equations, Abelian integrals and Saturn’s rings. Following her husband’s death, Kovalevskaya was appointed lecturer in mathematics at the University of Stockholm and later became the first woman in that region of Europe to receive a full professorship. She continued to make great strides in mathematics, winning the Prix Bordin from the French Academy of Sciences in 1888 for an essay on the rotation of a solid body as well as a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences the next year.

Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935)

In 1935, Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the New York Times, lauding the recently deceased Emmy Noether as “the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.” Noether had overcome many hurdles before she could collaborate with the famed physicist. She grew up in Germany and had her mathematics education delayed because of rules against women matriculating at universities. After she received her PhD, for a dissertation on a branch of abstract algebra, she was unable to obtain a university position for many years, eventually receiving the title of “unofficial associate professor” at the University of Göttingen, only to lose that in 1933 because she was Jewish. And so she moved to America and became a lecturer and researcher at Bryn Mawr College and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. There she developed many of the mathematical foundations for Einstein’s general theory of relativity and made significant advances in the field of algebra.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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