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Top 10 Women in Mathematics History

From Ancient Times to Early 20th Century


Mathematics as a field of science or philosophy was largely closed to women before the twentieth century. However, from ancient times through the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, a few women have achieved notably in mathematics. Here are ten women of note in early math -- their life stories and their achievements documented on this site.

1. Hypatia of Alexandria

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(355 or 370 - 415) - Greek - philosopher, astronomer, mathematician - She was the salaried head of the Neoplatonic School in Alexandria, Egypt, from the year 400. Her students were pagan and Christian young men from around the empire. She was killed by a mob of Christians in 415, probably inflamed by the bishop of Alexandria, Cyril.

2. Elena Cornaro Piscopia

(1646-1684) - Italian (Venice) - mathematician, theologian - She was a child prodigy who studied many languages, composed music, sang and played many instruments, and learned philosophy, mathematics and theology. Her doctorate, a first, was from the University of Padua, where she studied theology. She became a lecturer there in mathematics.

3. Maria Agnesi

(1718-1799) - Italian (Milan) - mathematician - Oldest of 21 children and a child prodigy who studied languages and math, she wrote a textbook to explain math to her brothers which became a noted textbook on mathematics. She was the first woman appointed a university professor of mathematics, though there's doubt she took up the chair.

4. Sophie Germain

(1776-1830) - French - mathematician - She studied geometry to escape boredom during the French Revolution when she was confined to her family's home, and went on to do important work in mathematics, especially her work on Fermat's Last Theorem.

5. Mary Fairfax Somerville

Mary Somerville
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(1780-1872) - Scottish and British - mathematician - known as the "Queen of Nineteenth Century Science," she fought family opposition to her study of math, and not only produced her own writings on theoretical and mathematical science, she produced the first geography text in England.

6. Ada Lovelace (Augusta Byron, Countess of Lovelace)

Ada Lovelace from a portrait by Margaret Carpenter
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(1815-1852) - British - mathematician - The only legitimate daughter of Byron, the poet, her translation of an article on Charles Babbage's Analytical Engine includes notations (three-fourths of the translation!) that describe what later became known as a computer and as software. In 1980, the Ada computer language was named for her.

7. Charlotte Angas Scott

(1848-1931) - English, American - mathematician, educator - Raised in a supportive family that encouraged her education, Charlotte Angas Scott became the first head of the math department at Bryn Mawr College. Her work to standardize testing for college entrance resulted in the formation of the College Entrance Examination Board.

8. Sofia Kovalevskaya

(1850-1891) - Russian - mathematician - She escaped her parents' opposition to her advanced study by a marriage of convenience, moving from Russia to Germany and, eventually, to Sweden, where her research in mathematics included the Koalevskaya Top and the Cauchy-Kovalevskaya Theorem.

9. Alicia Stott

(1860-1940) - English - mathematician - She translated Platonic and Archimedean solids into higher dimensions, taking years at a time away from her career to be a homemaker.

10. Amalie Emmy Noether

(1882-1935) - German, Jewish, American - mathematician - Called by Albert Einstein "the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began," Noether escaped Germany when the Nazis took over, and taught in America for several years before her unexpected death.
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