12 Brilliant Female Mathematicians You Should Know

by Olivia Harrison

Happy Pi Day! Every March 14th (3.14), America celebrates the mathematical constant π (pi). Why we need to celebrate this, I don’t know. But it is a fun excuse to bake and eat pie, throw pies, and talk about the lady mathematicians who changed the world.

Win Win

800px Hypatia portrait

1. Hypatia (AD ~351-415) 

Known as Hypatia of Alexandria, Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician Theon Alexandricus. Following in her father’s footsteps, she became a mathematician and philosopher after being educated in Athens. Around AD 400, she was named head of the Platonist school in Alexandria, where she taught the knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to her students, who included pagans, Christians, and foreigners. She was the first woman to make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics. Get it, girl.

Emilie Chatelet portrait by Latour copy

2. Émilie du Châtelet (1706-1749)

As a French mathematician, physicist, and author during the Age of Enlightenment, du Châtelet’s most celebrated achievement is considered to be her translation and commentary on Isaac Newton’s work Principia Mathematica. The translation was published in 1759, ten years after her death, and is still considered to be the standard French translation. Her commentary includes a profound contribution to Newtonian mechanics. One of her lovers was the writer, historian, and philosopher Voltaire. In a letter to his friend King Frederick II of Prussia, Voltaire wrote that du Châtelet was “a great man whose only fault was being a woman.” Bitch, please.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

3. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)

Agnesi was an Italian mathematician, philosopher, theologian and humanitarian. Clearly she had a lot going on. She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman to be appointed as a Mathematics Professor at a University. Agnesi wrote the first book that discussed both differential and integral calculus. She was said to be the first important woman mathematician since Hypatia, but I bet there are a few ladies we haven’t heard about thanks to HIStory.

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4. Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

A French mathematician, physicist, and philosopher— these ladies stayed busy— Germain defied opposition from her parents by seeking education from her father’s books and from correspondence with famous mathematicians. Totally badass, right? She was one of the pioneers of elasticity theory and won the grand prize from the Paris Academy of Sciences for her essay on the subject. Because she was a woman, Germain was unable to make a career out of mathematics, but she worked independently throughout her life, which is pretty inspiring.

Sofja Wassiljewna Kowalewskaja 1

5. Sofia Kovalevskaya (1850-1891)

Kovalevskaya was the first major Russian female mathematician. She is responsible for important contributions to analysis, partial differential equations and mechanics. Girlfriend was breaking down barriers every which way. She was the first woman appointed to a full professorship in Northern Europe as well as one of the first female editors to work for a scientific journal. 

Mary Everest Boole

6. Mary Everest Boole (1832–1916)

Boole was a self-taught mathematician, who is best known as the author of important educational works on mathematics. She had some amazingly progressive ideas on education and encouraged children to explore math through playful activities. Her book Philosophy and Fun of Algebra explained algebra and logic to children in interesting ways, like with fables and history. She also considered “cooperative learning” important because students could share discoveries with each other in an environment of peer tutoring to develop new ideas and methods. Sounds more fun than any math class I ever took. 


7. Emmy Noether (1882-1935)

A German Jewish mathematician, Noether is known for her landmark contributions to abstract algebra and theoretical physics. As one of the leading mathematicians of her time, she developed the theories of rings, fields, and algebras. In physics, Noether’s theorem explains the connection between symmetry and conservation laws. Noteable male mathemeticians and physisists like Pavel Alexandrov, Albert Einstein, Jean Dieudonné, Hermann Weyl, and Norbert Wiener have described Noether as the most important woman in the history of mathematics. Thanks for the recognition, bros.

haynes euphemia

8. Euphemia Haynes (1890-1980)

Hayes was the very first African-American woman to gain a PhD in mathematics. She received her PhD from The Catholic University of America in 1943 with a dissertation entitled The Determination of Sets of Independent Conditions Characterizing Certain Special Cases of Symmetric Correspondences. She contributed greatly to the educational system of her hometown Washington DC, teaching in the public schools for 47 years. Dr. Hayes was the first woman to chair the DC School Board. As a professor of mathematics at Miner’s Teachers College, she created and chaired the Division of Mathematics and Business Education.

Dame Mary Lucy Cartwright

9. Mary Cartwright (1900-1998)

Cartwright, a British mathematician, graduated with a first class degree in mathematics from St Hugh’s College, Oxford in 1923. She was the first woman to obtain a first class degree. She returned to Oxford in 1928 for her PhD, where she wrote her thesis on zeroes of entire functions. In 1945, she simplified Hermite’s elementary proof of the irrationality of π, and her proof was published in an appendix to Sir Harold Jeffreys’ book Scientific Inference. In 1947, she became the first female mathematician to be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. 

Marjorie Lee Browne

10. Marjorie Lee Browne (1914-1979)

A noted mathematics educator, Browne was one of the first African-American women to receive a doctorate in mathematics. As a mathematics graduate student at the University of Michigan, one of the few programs that accepted African American students at the time, she only attended classes during the summer because she was working full-time at the historically black Wiley College in Marshall, Texas. She completed her dissertation, “Studies of One Parameter Subgroups of Certain Topological and Matrix Groups,” in 1949. Browne eventually became the head of the mathmatics department at North Carolina College (now NCCU). Early on, she saw the importance of computer science and wrote a $60,000 grant to IBM to bring a computer to NCCU in 1960. It was one of the first computers in academic computing and the first at a historically black school. Throughout her years as an educator, she focused especially on encouraging math education for minorities and women.

Katherine Johnson

11. Katherine Johnson (1918-Present)

An American physicist, space scientist, and mathematician, Johnson contributed to America’s aeronautics and space programs with the early application of digital electronic computers at NASA. She’s known for accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, and she calculated the trajectory for Project Mercury and the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the moon. In 1938, Katherine became the first African American woman to desegregate the graduate school at West Virginia University. On November 24, 2015, President Barack Obama presented Johnson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her a pioneering example of African American women in STEM.

Mirzakhani original

12. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-Present)

Mirazakhani is an Iranian mathematician who currently serves as a professor of mathematics at Stanford University. As a high school student, she became the first female Iranian student to win a gold medal in the International Mathematical Olympiad. In 2014, Dr. Mirzakhani became both the first woman and the first Iranian honored with the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics, for her work in understanding the symmetry of curved surfaces. 

Images via giphyStanford Mathematics Department

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