Prominent women in mathematics
In celebration of International Women’s Day on the 8th of March, we have collated a list of 17 of the world’s most prominent women in mathematics. Read each of their short biographies to understand their profound influence.
Read also: Influential women in computer science
Hypatia of Alexandria (350 to 370-415)
Daughter of the Greek mathematician Theon, Hypatia is credited as being the first woman to make public contributions in the field of mathematics. Scholars differ on Hypatia’s date of birth but it is largely left unspecified. She lectured on mathematics, astronomy and philosophy, and was head of the Platonist School in Alexandria of ancient Greece (now Egypt). The fields of science, mathematics, astronomy and philosophy were seen squarely as the domain of men but Hypatia was ahead of her time, making commentaries on mathematical and philosophical works, being credited as the inventor of the hydrometer, dressing as a scholar or teacher rather than in what was considered to be ‘women’s clothing’, and driving her own chariot. She wrote many works of her own, and while it all has been lost, references exist in the works of others.
Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749)
A physicist, mathematician and writer during the Enlightenment, Emilie du Châtelet was a gifted and articulate student with a natural inclination for linguistics. Her father was supportive of her learning, enabling her level of education to excel beyond the limits placed upon French women during the period. In 1740, she published Institutions de Physique, espousing her knowledge in science and philosophy. From 1745 until her death, Emilie translated and commented on Newton’s renowned Principia Mathematica, which is still the book’s best-known translation even though it wasn’t published until ten years after her death. She had an advanced understanding of Newtonian physics and mechanics, illustrated in her commentary, which included clarification of the principles of Newton’s work.
Maria Agnesi (1718-1799)
Maria Agnesi was an Italian mathematician, philosopher, humanitarian and theologian. In 1750, she was appointed chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the Bologna Academy of Sciences, becoming the first female mathematics professor. By the age of 20, Maria had begun working on her book Analytical Institutions which was her most important contribution to mathematics. Originally intended as a textbook for her brothers, Analytical Institutions focuses on differential and integral calculus and contains elementary problems on maxima, minima, tangents, and inflection points. Also described in the text is the cubic curve which, due to mistranslation of the original Italian, is known as the ‘Witch of Agnesi’. Later in life, Maria, a deeply religious woman, joined a nunnery and ended her days tending to the less fortunate.
Sophie Germain (1776-1831)
Born during a tumultuous era in France and growing up through the Reign of Terror, Sophie Germain went against her parents’ wishes as she learned mathematics – gaining a love of differential geometry and number theory – from the books in her father’s library. She would assume the identity of a male student who had dropped out of school to correspond with mathematicians like Adrien-Marie Legendre, Friedrich Gauss and Joseph-Louis Lagrange, for whom she would submit papers under the name of the male student. Lagrange, upon discovering that his student was a woman, became her mentor. Sophie won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for her essay on elasticity theory in 1816, and is considered a pioneer of the field. The prize is now known as the Sophie Germain Prize. She became one of the first mathematicians to provide a partial solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem for a large class of exponents; her theorem was still being used 150 years following her death. As a result of her research, a prime number n when 2n+1 is also prime is called a Sophie Germain prime. In 1831, Sophie was awarded an honorary degree from the University of Göttengen, but she died of breast cancer before she was able to receive it.
Mary Somerville (1780-1872)
Mary Somerville first encountered algebra used as decoration in a magazine as a 15-year old. From this moment, despite the objections of her parents and, eventually, first husband, Mary was inspired to begin teaching herself and researching mathematics. She would correspond with William Wallace, a professor of mathematics from Edinburgh University, and acquired an ever-growing collection of mathematics books. She solved mathematical problems posed in journal contests, winning a silver prize in 1811 for a solution she had submitted. In 1826, Mary began publishing papers on scientific subjects. In 1831 she published her first book, The Mechanism of the Heavens, a translation and explanation of Pierre Laplace’s celestial mechanics, which led to widespread acclaim. In 1869 she published her fourth and final book, On Molecular and Microscopic Science, won a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society. She and Caroline Herschel were both jointly named the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville College of Oxford University is named after Mary, and upon her death a newspaper dubbed her ‘Queen of Nineteenth Century Science’.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Considered the world’s first computer programmer, Ada Lovelace was encouraged by her mother to study subjects like maths and science. A list of tutors, including Mary Somerville, aided in her development and interests, producing a young woman not just educated in mathematics and science but music and drawing; she was also fluent in French. Charles Babbage, the inventor of the (unbuilt) Analytical Engine – an early prototype of a computer which used punched cards to ‘read’ instructions for solving mathematical problems – became Ada’s mentor; she would translate an article about the Analytical Engine, with her own notes including a method for calculating a sequence of Bernoulli numbers. These notes included, in addition to introducing the idea of computer-generated music, an algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine, and were considered to be the world’s first computer programme. In the 1950s (a hundred years after her death), as the understanding of what computers were capable of began to take root, her notes were seen as a description of a computer and software. In 1980, the U.S. Department of Defense used the name ‘Ada’ for a standardised computer language in her honour.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Best known for her compassion and for being the founder of modern nursing, Florence Nightingale’s use of statistics revolutionised medical care and cut death rates. By presenting the statistics she had gathered through graphs and charts – a way of presenting information which had rarely been used prior – she was able to, in her own words, ‘affect thro’ the Eyes what we fail to convey to the public through their word-proof ears.’ Her invention of the polar area graph, or coxcomb, was a variation on a pie chart. Sanitation in hospitals improved dramatically thanks to her efforts, making Florence a ‘prophetess’ (per English mathematician and biostatistician Karl Pearson) of applied statistics. She was the first woman elected a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society in 1858 and became an honorary member of the American Statistical Association in 1874. She appeared on the back of the £10 note from 1975 to 1994.
Mary Everest Boole (1832-1916)
Mary Everest Boole was a self-taught mathematician, who is best known as the author of important educational works on mathematics such as Philosophy and Fun of Algebra. As the inventor of cooperative learning and playful activities intended to make teaching mathematics more child-friendly, Mary has had a lasting effect on modern day education. Explaining algebra and logic to children in interesting ways, such as with fables and history, as well as encouraging children to explore mathematics through tasks like curve stitching has made her life of interest to feminists as an example of how women made careers in an unwelcome academic system.
Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891)
Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya became the first woman to hold a university chair in modern Europe and the first female editor of a scientific journal. Prohibited from attending university in Russia or travelling abroad by her father, Sofia entered a marriage of convenience which gave her the freedom to move to Germany. Tutored privately, Sofia wrote her dissertation on partial differential equations which she later submitted to the University of Göttingen where she was awarded her doctorate summa cum laude without her having attended any classes. In 1888, Sofia won the Prix Bordin from the French Academie Royale des Sciences for research which examined how Saturn’s rings rotated now called the Kovelevskaya top. She also won a prize from the Swedish Academy of Sciences in 1889.
Emmy Noether (1882-1935)
Emmy Noether lived in a world that, at best, made women wait to be recognised. But she persisted with her life’s work and passions regardless, overcoming universities that did not allow women to officially enrol, universities with policies against hiring female professors, and being forced to flee Germany in 1933 to become, in the words of Albert Einstien, ‘the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.’ In 1918 she proved two theorems, including one known as ‘Noether’s Theorem’ which has shaped modern physics. A prolific writer of papers, Noether’s contributions to mathematics cover abstract algebra, theoretical physics, commutative rings, number theory, and work that confirmed key parts of the general theory of relativity. After years of not being recognised as a full professor and, if being allowed to teach, not being paid more than a stipend, in 1933 the Emergency Committee to Aid Displaced German Soldiers arranged a professorship with Bryn Mawr College in America. They paid her first year’s salary in cooperation with the Rockefeller Foundation; the grant was renewed for two more years in 1934. It was the first time she was recognised as a full faculty member. Sadly, Emmy died of complications to an operation to remove a uterine tumour in 1935.
Euphemia Haynes (1890-1980)
Euphemia Haynes was the first African-American woman to attain a PhD in mathematics. In 1943, Euphemia received her doctorate from The Catholic University of America for her dissertation: The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences. After graduating, Euphemia made significant contributions to the educational system of her hometown (Washington DC), teaching in public schools for 47 years. She later became the first female to chair the DC School Board. As a professor of mathematics at Miner’s Teachers College, Euphemia created and chaired the Division of Mathematics and Business Education.
Mary Cartwright (1900-1998)
Mary Cartwright’s career is full of firsts. She was the first woman to get a first class degree in mathematics, the first female mathematician to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society, the first (with J.E. Littlewood) to analyse a dynamic system with chaos, the first woman to receive the Sylvester Medal for mathematical research, and the first woman to serve as president of the London Mathematical Society. In 1919 she was one of just five women studying mathematics at Oxford. She would go on to lecture at Cambridge University, earned her doctorate from Oxford in mathematics and had her thesis (on zeroes of entire functions) published in the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics. She published more than 100 papers, covering her work on level curves, functions in the unit disk, topology and differential equations. She played a role in simplifying the elementary proof of the irrationality of pi. One of her theorems, known as ‘Cartwright’s Theorem’, is still applied in signal processing. Mary was also awarded the De Morgan Medal from the London Mathematical Society. Queen Elizabeth II honoured her life’s work by proclaiming her Dame Mary Cartwright in 1969.
Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979)
Mathematician and educator Marjorie Lee Browne was one of the first African-American women to receive a doctorate in mathematics. In 1949, Marjorie completed her dissertation ‘Studies of One Parameter Subgroups of Certain Topological and Matrix Groups’ at the University of Michigan. She then went on to become head of the mathematics department at North Carolina College, (now North Carolina Central University) predominantly focusing on encouraging mathematics education for minorities and women. Throughout her career, Marjorie understood the importance of computer science. In 1960, she wrote a $60,000 grant to IBM to bring a computer to North Carolina College. It was the first computer at a historically black school and one of the first in academic computing.
Katherine Johnson (1918-Present)
Katherine Johnson is an African-American maths prodigy who finished school at 14-years-old and graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia State College at 18-years-old. Katherine went on to work for NASA as one of the ‘computers who wore skirts’ during the Space Race. Her advanced knowledge of analytic geometry resulted in her assignment to the all-male flight research team, where she calculated the trajectory of Alan Shepherd’s first voyage into space. Katherine stayed on the research team, working at Langley Research Center from 1953 to 1986. In 2015, Katherine received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Barack Obama. Her work is celebrated in the biographical drama film Hidden Figures.
Julia Robinson (1919-1985)
Julia Robinson was an American mathematician who became the first woman elected by the National Academy of Sciences and president of American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Despite facing considerable health problems for most of her life, Julia taught as a professor at the University of California, Berkeley where she was best known for her work on decision problems and Hilbert’s Tenth Problem which spanned several decades. Robinson collaborated with colleagues, including Hillary Putnam, to formulate a condition that would answer Hilbert’s question which asked if a general algorithm could be constructed to determine the solvability of any Diophantine equation in the negative. Julia was also the first female president of the American Mathematical Society.
Shafi Goldwasser (1958-Present)
Shafi Goldwasser is both a professor of mathematics (at the Weizmann Institute of Science) and of computer science (at MIT, where she was the first person to hold an RSA Professorship). Shafi has been awarded the Gödel Prize in theoretical computer science twice for her work on theoretical computer science which focuses on zero-knowledge proof, complexity theory, computation number theory and cryptography.
Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)
Maryam Mirzahkani was the first (and to date only) woman to be honoured with a Fields Medal (the most valuable and prestigious award in mathematics), which she was awarded in 2014 for her work in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces. An Iranian mathematician who also won gold medals in the 1994 and 1995 International Mathematical Olympiad, including a perfect score in ’95, her doctoral advisor at Harvard, Curtis McMullen, described her as having ‘a fearless ambition when it comes to mathematics.’ Maryam served as a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, and is considered one of the greatest mathematicians of the 21st century.
In honour of these women, enjoy free access to a collection of papers in mathematics written by women:
Institute of Mathematics: Five famous female mathematicians
Mental Floss: 15 female mathematicians whose accomplishments add up
ThoughtCo: Women in mathematics history
Smithsonian: Five historic female mathematicians you should know
Ranker: Famous female mathematicians
Scientific American: 3 revolutionary women of mathematics
The Telegraph: 10 female mathematicians who changed the world
Insider Monkey: 10 most famous female mathematicians in the 21st century
Famous Mathematicians: Top 10 famous female mathematicians of all time
AP Central: Women’s history: Women in mathematics
Biographies of women mathematicians: A timeline
Famous Mathematicians: 15 famous female mathematicians and their contributions