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Famous Female Mathematicians

Women have made their mark in mathematics since ancient times

Across centuries and continents, women have excelled in mathematics and even made essential discoveries to solve critical problems. Many people are now familiar with Katherine Johnson, a black mathematician featured in the film Hidden Figures, and her historic contribution at NASA to safe space travel.

A walk through history unveils stories of many women who loved math, learned all they could of it, and served others with their substantial knowledge.

The first woman renowned in mathematics was Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt (350 A.D. to 415 A.D.) She taught philosophy and astronomy, and wrote illuminating commentary on the immense multi-volume Arithmetica. She was a controversial and courageous figure of her time––though no one in the eastern Roman Empire could deny her extraordinary learning and capability as a mathematician.

More than a thousand years after Hypatia clarified a major math text, a woman at last created one of her own. Maria Gaetana Agnesi of Italy (1718-1799) had brothers who needed help to learn math. So, she wrote a handbook in order to teach them. That textbook so astonished the great minds of her day that she became the first woman ever appointed as a university professor of mathematics.

The story of late-18th century boundary-breaking French mathematician Sophie Germaine quite contrasts with this. Alarmed by her dedication to math, her parents confiscated her bedroom lamp. So, she studied her math texts by candlelight. And later submitted brilliant papers in Paris under a male pseudonym.

Women who loved math carried on. Can you imagine making a contribution so notable that a computer language is one day named after you? That is what happened well over 100 years after Ada Lovelace of England (1815-1852) translated an article on a complex analysis engine, adding a great many notations of her own. Those notations described what became known as the first computer and software––named “Ada” in 1980.

Toward the end of the 19th century, the doors of higher mathematics began to open more widely to women across the globe. Women from the U.S., Canada, Russia, China, India, Iran and other nations entered advanced math circles that had previously been closed. Grace Chisholm Young won awards at Cambridge for her 1914-1916 discoveries in calculus. In the 1950s, Evelyn Boyd Granville performed pioneering computer work at IBM. Over decades that followed, Olga Taussky-Todd contributed more than 300 papers on algebraic number theory.

Today, young women are branching out in all directions with math. Danica McKellar, born in 1975, has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from UCLA with summa cum laude honors. She is also an accomplished working actress and the author of six non-fiction Young Adult books all having to do with math. Her dream for her books is that they encourage middle and high school girls to feel confident that they can also succeed with math.

As history unfolds forward, DreamBox looks toward tapping the math potential in all K-8 girls––wherever they live, and whatever creative life and learning they hope to achieve.

Katherine Johnson did the calculations that made it possible to bring the first manned spaceflights safely back to earth. Many fine articles describe her accomplishments, including this one.

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