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Women in Maths Day: 12 Female Mathematicians - 12th May 2021

by Cordelia Webb

Hypatia of Alexandria (~350–370 to 415) is the earliest well documented female mathematician. Around the year 400, she was the head of the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria which drew in crowds from miles around. She wrote commentaries on many older texts including Apollonius’ Conics, Diophantus’ Arithmetic and edited Ptolemy’s Almagest.  She was also known for her construction of devices such as astrolabes and hydrometers.

Sutayta Al-Mahāmali (~950s to 987) was from an educated family in Baghdad. She was a leading algebraist of the time, solving open problems and being sought out for her mathematical knowledge by other scholars in Baghdad. She was an expert in fara’idh (calculating inheritance in line with Islamic law) which she used an algebraic formula for. Most of her original contributions to algebra and arithmetic have now been lost or are no longer attributed to her.

Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778) is recognized as the first woman in the world to be appointed a university chair in any scientific field. A physicist, she spread Newtonian mechanics through Italy. For most of her career, she was not allowed to lecture so would conduct private lessons and experiments. However, as she became a greater symbolic and political figure, she made regular appearances on behalf of the University of Bologna so much so that she earned their highest salary.  In 1776 she was permitted to teach experimental physics with her husband as teaching assistant.

Wang Zhenyi (1768–1797) was a self-taught Chinese mathematician and astronomer who published over 12 books including The Musts of Calculation, a rewritten, more accessible version of Mei Wending’s Principles of Calculation, which itself was an instrumental Chinese textbook. One of her biggest achievements is being recognised as an acclaimed scholar in Qing dynasty China.

Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872) was the first woman to present a paper to the Royal Society in 1826 and the joint first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835. In 1827, she was tasked with translating Laplace’s five volume Mécanique Céleste, a summary of gravitational physics up to that point. She translated and expanded it into The Mechanisms of the Heavens which became a standard textbook. She also wrote other books on wider science including the first English Geography textbook.

Christine Ladd-Franklin (1847 – 1930) was accepted into John Hopkins University as C Ladd without anyone realising she was a woman. She had already published over 80 items in the Education Times of London, AJM and The Analyst. Despite many restrictions on her access to the university, she completed all the requirements for her doctorate in Logic but was not awarded the qualification until 44 years later. She was the first American woman to be educated at a graduate level in mathematics. She was eventually allowed to teach one class a year at John Hopkins on an annual unpaid basis.

Sofya Kowalevski (1850 – 1891) was the first woman to earn a modern doctorate in mathematics. Unable to pursue her education in Russia, she moved to Germany where she had private lessons with Karl Weierstrass. He helped her gain her doctorate with papers in PDEs, dynamics and elliptical integrals which included the Cauchy– Kowalevski theorem. In 1888, she won the French Academy of Sciences’ Prix Bordin prize for her work on dynamics around a fixed point and the following year became a professor at Stockholm University, the first female lecturer in Sweden.

Euphemia Haynes (1890 – 1980) was the first African American woman to gain a PhD in mathematics in 1943 from the University of Chicago in algebraic geometry. She spent her career teaching, becoming the first woman to chair the board of education in Washington DC and establishing the maths department at the University of the District of Columbia.

Olga Taussky-Todd (1906- 1995) published over 300 research papers in algebraic number theory, matrix theory and analysis. She completed her doctorate in 1930 at the University of Vienna where she studied functional analysis under Hans Hanh and algebraic systems with Emmy Noether. As a Jew, she fled to England in 1934 and spent the war developing matrix theory to track aircraft. She continued to build the field as a lecturer at Cambridge and then Caltech, helping to show its applications and importance across mathematics.

Mary Cartwright (1900 – 1998) was the first woman to graduate with a first in Mathematics from Oxford. She was supervised by Hardy to obtain her PhD in analytic function theory. She attended some of Littlewood’s lectures where she solved one of his open problems. In the 1930s, she was recommended to help radio and radar modelling as an example of the Butterfly effect, making her an early pioneer of chaos theory. In 1947, she became the first female mathematician to be elected to the Royal Society.

Julia Robinson (1919 – 1985) was the first female president of the AMS. Her work was instrumental in the proof of Hilbert’s 10th problem on Diophantine equations and the first to reference “travelling salesman problems” in her game theory work. She was not allowed to teach in the Berkeley maths department as her husband worked there so she only gained a full-time position three years after he retired.

Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017) was the first (and currently only) female Fields medallist. It was awarded for "her outstanding contributions to the dynamics and geometry of Riemann surfaces and their moduli spaces." She proved the prime number theorem for simple closed geodesics, Thurston’s Earthquake conjecture and contributed to the proof of the regularity of the moduli space closure of complex geodesics.