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Ever wondered why stories about mathematicians always seem to be
about men? Is it because men are better at maths than women?
Absolutely not, it's because until very recently society dictated
that it wasn't very respectable for women to be mathematicians.
Unfair as it was, it was very difficult for a woman to make herself
heard and to be accepted by other mathematicians. It just wasn't
the done thing in polite society. But there were a few women who
dared to go against the flow, and their achievements demonstrate
that women have as much to contribute to mathematics as any of
their male counterparts. This article is about just a handful of
the most famous women in the history of maths, but there are plenty
more successful women out there.
Caroline Herschel was the sister of a very famous astronomer,
William Herschel who was credited with discovering the planet
Uranus. Caroline assisted her brother with his astronomical
observations, and did most of the complicated mathematical
calculations that were involved in working out the position of
stars and planets. Before long she was conducting observations of
her own, and discovered several new comets, which was a major
achievement for any astronomer. When King George III gave her an
annual salary for her astronomical work, Caroline became the first
woman ever to be paid for doing a scientific job. The Royal
Astronomical Society awarded her a Gold Medal in 1828 and she was
honoured throughout Europe.
Another famous woman in mathematics was Mary Somerville who was
born in 1780. She taught herself maths at home because at that time
girls didn't learn maths at school. She was married twice, and her
second husband was interested in maths and science. He introduced
her to all kinds of famous mathematicians who were amazed to find
that she understood their work extremely well, which was more than
could be said for a lot of the men working in maths at the time. A
friend asked her to translate a very important work by a French
mathematician called Laplace and she not only translated it, but
added some original work and made it much easier for other people
to understand. She wrote several other books that made maths and
science accessible to a much wider audience.
Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet Lord Byron,
though she never met her father. She was taught by Mary Somerville
and through her family and friends she met several influential
mathematicians and scientists, one of whom was Charles Babbage.
Together, Lovelace and Babbage worked on the theoretical principles
of the Analytical Engine, a machine which Babbage had designed but
which was never finished in their lifetime. The engine was designed
to perform vast quantities of complex calculations using a
complicated mechanism of wheels and cogs, saving mathematicians a
lot of time and effort. Lovelace contributed some highly original
ideas to how it could be used to automate very difficult
mathematical processes. Lovelace realised that a calculating
machine could be programmed in the same way as a weaving machine,
using cards with holes punched in them in a specific arrangement.
She is now regarded as one of the earliest pioneers of computer
Did you know that Florence Nightingale was a mathematician as
well as a nurse? She developed systems of collecting, analysing,
interpreting and displaying data about diseases and patients'
deaths that are now considered to be quite advanced statistical
methods. Because she presented her statistics so clearly and
persuasively, civil servants could understand them and were more
easily convinced by her arguments for improved healthcare and
sanitation. She was the first woman to be elected a member of the
Royal Statistical Society, and her work contributed to the
improvement of medical care in India as well as Britain.
Many of the women featured in this article were still quite
restricted in what they were allowed to do and often depended on
male collaborators to make their work seem respectable. Thanks to
their success and determination opinions have changed, although it
happened very slowly. Today there are hundreds of thousands of
women working in mathematics, pushing the boundaries of knowledge
and doing award-winning research. Who knows what the next
generation of female mathematicians will achieve? Will you be one
You can find out more about women in maths at http://www.agnesscott.edu/lriddle/women/women.htm