Hey, have you heard of Einstein? Yes. Ok, how about Pythagoras? Yeah, we thought you would have. But have you heard of Hypatia?
Unfortunately, there is a stereotype out there that maths is a boys subject, and this is reinforced by the fact that most of the famous mathematicians we often hear about are men. However, there have been plenty of women who have made groundbreaking contributions to the world of mathematics.
Unfortunately, many of these famous female mathematicians aren’t as well known as they should be. We hope that by discussing with students the feats of these five amazing women, that you not only inspire young girls to pursue an interest in STEM but also show all students that mathematics is a subject that can be enjoyed by everyone irrespective of gender. So, with that in mind, here are Whizz Education’s top five female mathematicians you should know about.
1. Hypatia (born c. 350–370; died 415 AD)
Born in Alexandria sometime between 350 and 370 AD, back when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire, Hypatia is universally recognised as the first famous female mathematician. The daughter of Greek mathematician and philosopher, Theon of Alexandria, Hypatia was determined to preserve Ancient Greece’s mathematical and astronomical heritage. Her efforts saw her become one of the leading mathematicians and astronomers of her time and she was eventually named the head of the prestigious Platonist School in Alexandria, where she taught mathematics, philosophy and astronomy. Unfortunately, most of Hypatia’s work has been lost, although references to it remain in other texts.
2. Florence Nightingale (1820-1910)
While better known for her heroics as a nurse during the Crimean War, Nightingale is also considered one of history’s most famous female mathematicians. After coming back from the war, Nightingale worked as a statistician and dedicated herself to collecting figures she hoped would improve the quality of care in hospitals. The data she gathered indicated that poor sanitation was the key cause of deaths within hospitals and her research was a driving force behind a sharp decline in preventable deaths in both military and civilian healthcare facilities during the 19th century. She was also very skilled at creating aesthetically pleasing graphs to present her findings and is credited with the invention of the coxcomb, a variation of the pie chart.
3. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)
A giant in the world of STEM, Ada Lovelace not only holds the honour of being one of the most famous women in maths history, but she is also recognised as the first-ever computer programmer of any gender. In 1843, while working with Cambridge professor, Charles Babbage, Lovelace wrote a series of instructions for a device Babbage was designing called the Analytical Engine – the precursor to the modern computer. This program, which was intended to help the Engine calculate Bernoulli Numbers, is universally recognised as the world’s first computer program and has written Lovelace’s name into the annals of history.
4. Mary Everest Boole (1832-1916)
A self-taught mathematician, Gloucestershire-born Boole is best remembered for her seminal works on the teaching of mathematics to young children. It was during her stint as a librarian at Queens College, London, that Boole first discovered her love of teaching. While college rules explicitly forbade women from teaching, Boole acted as an unofficial mentor to students, pioneering the use of natural objects, such as sticks or stones to explain mathematical concepts. This was indicative of her philosophy that maths should be fun and her books encouraged children to explore mathematical concepts through playful activities. Her most prominent work, ‘The Philosophy and Fun of Algebra’ was published in 1904 and was noteworthy for its use of fables and history to explain algebra and logic to children. Many of the practices we still use in the classroom, including the use of maths manipulatives and cooperative learning, can be traced back to this famous female mathematician. An amazing feat for a woman whose father forced her to drop out of school at age 11.
5. Amalie Emmy Noether (1882 – 1935)
When Albert Einstein refers to someone as one of the most creative and significant mathematicians of all time you know they must be something special. One of the leading mathematicians of the early 20th century, German-born Noether, initially trained to teach English and French, but she was actually more interested in teaching maths. After fighting sexist university policies, she eventually graduated with a PhD and went on to make significant contributions to the world of abstract algebra and theoretical physics. Her crowning achievement came in 1919 when she published Noether’s Theorem, which is considered by some academics to be as important as Einstein’s theory of relativity. No wonder she is considered one of the most significant female mathematicians in history!
That concludes our blog on the Top Five Famous Female Mathematicians you should know about. We believe that these women deserve to be as well known as their male contemporaries. With that in mind, we really hope you share their stories with your students. Additionally, we must mention that there are many more women out there who have made significant contributions to the field and we encourage you to research them too.