If asked to name a famous female mathematician, how many names come readily to mind?
Too few, if any, is sadly the answer for most of us. But throughout history, there have been many amazing female mathematicians who conquered stereotypes, broke down barriers, and achieved excellence despite the obstacles they faced. Even today, the misconception persists that boys are simply better at math than girls. The scientific evidence, including recent research from Carnegie Mellon University, suggests there are no in-built gender differences in mathematical ability. Yet, females are still greatly underrepresented in mathematics in higher education and in math-based careers. Conditioning and gender stereotypes are partly to blame for the problem. Providing excellent role models is part of the solution. These 11 impressive female mathematicians prove that women and girls can certainly do math!
Born between 350 and 370 CE, in Alexandria, Egypt, Hypatia was one of the world’s first female mathematicians. Taught by her mathematician father, Theon, she was raised from a young age to have a strong mind. A Neoplatonist, she became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, and a renowned teacher of philosophy and astronomy. Her life came to a tragic end in 415 CE. Caught up in religious and political conflict, Hypatia, a pagan, was wrongly accused of anti-Christian feeling, and was brutally murdered in the street by a group of Christian rioters. She has been held up as a martyr by various groups, including pagans, Christians and atheists, being seen to represent reason and virtue.
Notorious more for her relationship with Voltaire than for her intellectual achievements, Émilie du Châtelet is now acknowledged as a great mathematician, philosopher and physicist. Born in Paris in 1706 to an aristocratic French family, du Châtelet made the most of the educational opportunities she had, pursuing her passion for math and the sciences. Married at 18 and having three children, she continued her studies. While the scientific establishment was hostile to women, her lover, Voltaire, respected and acknowledged her contributions to his works. She published her greatest work, “The Foundations of Physics,” in 1740. At the age of 42, she worked hard to complete her translation of Newton’s “Principia” while pregnant, knowing the risks of childbirth at that age. She died as a result of complications from the birth in 1749.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan in 1718 to a wealthy family and was soon recognized as a highly gifted child. Although she expressed ambitions to be a nun, she was encouraged to follow her academic pursuits and is most well known for writing the first mathematical textbook to deal with both integral and differential calculus, as well as her analysis of “the Witch of Agnesi,” a type of curve named for her and mistranslated to “witch” from Italian. A brilliant mathematician, Agnesi chose to leave academia relatively early, and devoted herself to following her religious beliefs and helping the poor. Although she died in poverty in 1799, she was a woman who ultimately was able to choose the direction of her own life.
One of the most celebrated female scientists, Ada Lovelace was born in London, England, in 1815. The daughter of Lord Byron, she had an aristocratic upbringing but, unlike other women of the time, was encouraged to study science and math by her mother. Frequently named as the world’s first computer programmer, she created a system for coding the early computing machine of Charles Babbage. Lovelace married and had three children, but died of cancer in 1852, at the age of just 36. Although her contributions were not fully appreciated at the time, in the 1950s her publications were rediscovered, and eventually, she earned the recognition she deserved, even having a programming language named after her by the U.S. Department of Defense.
The most famous nurse in history, who revolutionized nursing and standards in health care, was also a brilliant statistician. Born in 1820, Florence Nightingale was determined to become a nurse from a young age, and by her thirties was on her way to becoming a respected leader in the field. Treating soldiers in the awful conditions of the Crimean War in the 1850s, Nightingale compiled and analyzed data, allowing her to drastically reduce death rates.
She created a type of pie chart, and became known for her exceptional skills in communicating statistics graphically, thereby making them understandable to general audiences. She became the first female member of the Royal Statistical Society in 1858. Having established the principles of the modern nursing profession, as well as contributing to the foundations of epidemiology, she died in 1910, at the age of 90.
Born in Erlangen, Germany, in 1882, Amelie Emmy Noether became one of history’s most noted female mathematicians. Recognized for her creativity in her specialism of algebra, she gained the respect of Albert Einstein, helping to formulate mathematical explanations for his Theory of General Relativity. She made an enduring and significant contribution to theoretical physics in 1915, with Noether’s Theorem, which is still finding new applications today. In 1933, Jewish academics were removed from office by the Nazis, and Noether went to the United States. She sadly died in 1935, aged 53, after surgery on an ovarian cyst.
Marjorie Lee Browne fell in love with math as a child, and remained in love with the beauty of pure math for the rest of her life. Born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1914, she was one of the first black women to earn a PhD in mathematics, and is recognized as a pioneer in mathematics education. Appointed chair of the Mathematics Department at North Carolina College in 1951, just two years after obtaining her doctorate, she set up an early computer center and helped develop use of computers in the discipline. She also continued her work in abstract mathematics, contributing to the field of topology. Retiring in 1979, she died later the same year.
Katherine Johnson has achieved fame through the portrayal of her experiences in the movie “Hidden Figures,” and is finally receiving the recognition she deserves. Born in 1918 in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, Katherine Johnson showed a genius for math as a child. After graduating from college, she went into teaching until brought in as a “human computer,” to help the fledgling NASA prepare for space flight. She was one of a number of black women who played a pivotal, and long-underappreciated role in the U.S. space program of the 1960s and 70s. Johnson played a crucial role in John Glenn’s Apollo 11 space flight. In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. A mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother, in 2019 she celebrated her 101st birthday and her 60th wedding anniversary.
Born in 1923 in Toronto, Canada, Cathleen Singe Morawetz is seen as a trailblazer for women in mathematics. Spending most of her career at New York University, one of her most noted achievements was in transonic flow, which had valuable applications for aeronautical engineering in the 1950s. Morawetz was also recognized as an outstanding professor and mentor, encouraging future mathematicians. In 1998, she became the first woman to win the National Medal of Science for achievements in mathematics. After a lifetime filled with awards and success, she died in 2017 at the age of 94.
Frequently referred to as “The Mother of the Internet,” Radia Perlman is best known for creating the algorithm for the Spanning Tree Protocol, which was a major step in the development of the internet. Born in Portsmouth, Virginia in 1951, Perlman was educated at MIT. Despite having a mother who was a computer programmer, she initially lacked confidence in this area. But once given the right opportunity to learn her abilities allowed her to progress rapidly, and she became a leader in the field of computer programming. Still a male-dominated career, Perlman was one of the few women who forged a path in this field in the 1970s.
Maryam Mirzakhani was one of the leading lights in mathematics, before her premature death at the age of just 40. Born in 1977 in Tehran, Iran, she gained her doctorate at Harvard and became a professor at Stanford. She made major research contributions in the area of geometry, and became the first woman (and first Iranian) to be awarded the Fields Medal in 2014. This is often referred to as the “Nobel of mathematics,” since there is no Nobel prize in math. She lost her battle with breast cancer in 2017, leaving behind a husband and daughter, as well as a body of work that continues to push boundaries. Her birthday, May 12th, has been declared International Women in Mathematics Day.
The examples set by these outstanding female mathematicians offer encouragement to any of us who want to pursue careers in STEM. Some of the most in-demand and highest-paying fields are those which require strong math skills. While obstacles still exist, women such as these mathematicians prove we can challenge stereotypes and succeed.
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