Historically, men have dominated the field of mathematics. Women were usually discouraged from studying higher mathematics, but many advocated for equality. In this essay, Dr Shaheena Khatoon takes us through a journey through the past and more recent present, introducing us to the many female mathematicians who changed the world of numbers.
Female mathematicians have contributed greatly to the field, despite not being as well-known as many of their male predecessors throughout history. Women have made just as much, if not more, contributions to mathematics than men have. They continue to astound the mathematical community today. Let’s discover some of the most illustrious female mathematicians.
ANCIENT FEMALE MATHEMATICIANS
Hypatia of Alexandria (350A.D. to 470 A.D.)
Daughter of Greek mathematician and philosopher Theon of Alexandria, Hypatia is the first well-known female mathematician. She became one of the most well-known mathematicians and astronomers of her time and gained control as headteacher at the prestigious Platonist School in Alexandria, where she instructed students in arithmetic, philosophy, and astronomy. As was common for women in those days, most of Hypatia’s work has tragically been destroyed, although there are still references to it in other ancient writings.
Theano (c.6th Century B.C.)
Pythagoras’ wife, Theano, is thought to have continued the Pythagorean School with the help of her two daughters after he passed away. She was an administrator, a physician, and a mathematician, The Golden Mean principle was her most significant contribution.
Damo (c. 500 B.C.)
Damo was the daughter of Pythagoras. She was a remarkable combination of intelligence and beauty, and was a preeminent mathematician and philosopher of her time.
THE 18TH AND 19TH CENTURIES FEMALE MATHEMATICIANS
Emilie du Châtelet (1706-1749)
A physicist, mathematician and novelist from France. Emilie has translated and commented on Newton’s famous Principia Mathematica, which is among the best-known translated books. She had developed an understanding of Newton’s physics and mechanics as shown in the commentary, which clarified aspects of Newton’s work.
Maria Agnesi (1718-1799)
Maria was a mathematician, philosopher, human rights activist and theologian from Italy. She is most known for her work Analytical Institutions. The main focus of the book is differential and integral calculus, which includes simple exercises such as maxima, minima, tangents, and inflections.
Marie Sophie Germain (1776-1831)
Germain was a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher from France. She studied books in her father’s library despite initial resistance from her parents and the challenges posed by society. She was one of the first mathematicians to offer a partial solution to Fermat’s Last Theorem; her theorem is still in use even after about 200 years of her death. She was unable to pursue a profession in mathematics due to discrimination against her sex, yet she worked independently all her life.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
Ada Lovelace, an English mathematician, is considered the mother of algorithmic computation. She collaborated with Charles Babbage to create the Analytical Engine, which is acknowledged as the first basic calculation method ever created. Her development of the first computer program to compute Bernoulli numbers served as the model for all subsequent computer programming.
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
Nightingale was an English statistician, social reformer, and a pioneer of contemporary nursing. Although she is most recognized for her work as a nurse, she was also regarded as one of the most prominent female mathematicians of her time. Early on, Florence Nightingale showed a talent for math, and with her father’s guidance, she became an expert. Later, Nightingale rose to prominence as a pioneer in the visual presentation of data and statistical graphics.
Mary Everest Boole (1832-1916)
Boole was a self-taught mathematician who is most well-known for writing the book Philosophy and Fun of Algebra. Her book included history, philosophy, and literature as well as engaging explanations of algebra and logic for young readers. It began with a parable. Mary promoted the use of creative and critical thinking along with mathematical imagination. In her book The Preparation of the Child for Science, she outlined her progressive educational theories, which included encouraging kids to learn arithmetic through engaging games like curve stitching. Her life is a perfect example that shows how women may succeed in academia while being marginalized.
Mary Cartwright (1900-1998)
Mary was a mathematician from the UK. She was a forerunner of the chaos theory. Her career has been filled with firsts. She was the first female mathematician to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, the first to analyze a dynamic system with chaos (along with J.E. Littlewood), the first female to win the Sylvester Medal for mathematical research, and the first female president of the London Mathematical Society.
THE 21ST CENTURY FEMALE MATHEMATICIANS
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Katherine was an African-American math prodigy who completed her education at age 14 and graduated at age 18. She went on to work for NASA. She was given a job on the all-male flight research team because of her excellent grasp of analytic geometry, where she estimated the course of Alan Shepherd’s first trip into space. From 1953 to 1986, Katherine remained a member of the research team and worked at the Langley Research Centre. Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. The biographical drama film Hidden Figures honours her contributions.
Shafi Goldwasser (1958-Present)
Shafi Goldwasser Israeli-American computer scientist, a professor of computer science at MIT and a professor of mathematics at the Weizmann Institute of Science, where she was the first individual to hold an RSA Professorship. She has twice received the Gödel Prize for theoretical computer science in recognition of her work in the fields of cryptography, computation number theory, complexity theory, and zero-knowledge proof.
Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017)
MUSLIM FEMALE MATHEMATICIANS OF MEDIEVAL TIMES
Fatimah Al-Majritiya (d . 1008 C.E)
Fatima Al-Majritiya, a brilliant female mathematician and astronomer in medieval Andalusia (Spain), made important advances in observational astronomy. Fatimah and her father updated The Astronomical Tables of Al-Khwarizmi (by converting the Persian calendar to the Islamic calendar) and worked on astronomical calendars. They also established the positions of celestial bodies like the Sun, Moon, and planets. The Corrections of Fatima, which comprised updates to earlier astronomical and mathematical findings as well as modifications to her father’s discoveries, is Fatima’s most important contribution to astronomy and mathematics. Fatima also contributed to A Treatise on the Astrolabe, a book on an instrument used in astronomy to precisely determine the positions of celestial bodies. She also made corrections to Ptolemy’s Almagest, a work on the celestial motions and
Fatimah Al-Fihri (800 A.D. – 880 A.D)
Fatima Al-Fihri was born into a prosperous merchant family in modern-day Tunisia. She founded the Al-Qarawiyyin mosque, the first university ever established. She pursued her studies in mathematics and Islamic law with her sister Maryam. The Rawd al-Qirtas (The Garden of Pages), the definitive history of Morocco written in Arabic in 1326 CE by the historian Ibn Abi Zar, is where her contributions to mathematics are documented.
Sutayta al-Mahamali (d. 987)
During the Golden Age of Muslim culture, Sutaita was one of the most well-known mathematicians in Baghdad (Iraq). She worked on algebraic equation theory, also referred to as hisab, or accounting in Arabic, and was regarded as a specialist in inheritance formulas (successor calculations). Al-Khwarizhmi developed the field, and at the time Sutaita was regarded as one of the most precise and established inheritance formulas available. She made substantial improvements to cubic equations and was a well-known legal scholar.
FEMALE MATHEMATICIANS OF INDIA
Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013)
The first female mathematician from India was Shakuntala Devi. She earned the nickname “the human computer” for her prodigious mental processing speed when handling complicated calculations. She published many books about math and her approach to solving problems. Puzzles to Puzzle You, Super Memory: It Can Be Yours and Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child are a few of her well-known publications.
Raman Parimala (1948-present)
Raman Parimala is recognized for her work in algebra. She made remarkable contributions to algebra using number theory, algebraic geometry, and topology. Her publication of the first instance of nontrivial quadratic space over an affine plane is among her most illustrious works. She has won a lot of praise for her algebraic work. Of the 11 women in science, Parimala was chosen by the Ministry of Women and Child Development to receive a Chair in their honour in 2020.
Mangala Narlikar (1943 – 2023)
Real and complex analysis, algebra, number theory, and topology were among Mangala Narlikar’s primary research interests. Her efforts were directed toward simplifying difficult mathematical issues. She also published several books about mathematics, including Fun and Fundamentals of Mathematics, A Cosmic Adventure, Ganit Gappa, and Dosti Ganitashi.
This list is not exhaustive. There are still many women mathematicians left to be covered in the article but we hope the contribution of these female mathematicians and their incredible work can motivate the future generation’s great mathematical minds.