Women in Mathematics: A Brief History

In Proof, we meet the brilliant, yet underestimated, mathematician Catherine. Her struggle for relevancy and recognition in what has traditionally been a professional and academic field dominated by men is at the heart of the play. ProofVertMed

L. Peter Callender and Michelle Beck in Proof. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Traditionally, women have been an underrepresented group in the STEM fields, both academically and professionally. Here are some real female mathematicians who overcame obstacles similar to those facing Catherine:

Hypatia_0 Hypatia of Alexandria: 350-370-415 AD Greek Domain

Hypatia of Alexandria was a brazen, highly intelligent woman who excelled in the fields of science, math and philosophy, which at the time were seen squarely as the domain of men. Hypatia was a teacher, as well as being the inventor of the hydrometer. While this bright Greek woman’s life was cut short, brutally murdered by a gang of Christians, Hypatia was able lay the groundwork for future female pioneers of mathematics.


Maria Gaetana Agnesi: 1718-1799, Italy

Agnesi was an Italian mathematician, linguist, and philosopher. Agnesi published the first book that dealt with both integral and differential calculus. In 1750, Maria was appointed as chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the Bologna Academy of Sciences, an incredible accomplishment for any woman in the mid eighteenth century.  Later in life, Agnesi, a deeply religious woman, joined a nunnery and ended her days tending to the less fortunate.


Augusta Ada Bryon King, Countess of Lovelace: 1815-1852, England

English born Ada was the daughter of famed poet Lord Byron. Aside from her famous father, Ada is primarily known for her programming work regarding Charles Babbage’s invention of the analytical engine, a very early mechanical general-purpose computer. Lovelace was ahead of her time in this field, as she believed that computers held the capacity to do more than just simply act as calculators. Today Lovelace is remembered fondly as the first female computer programmer (before the modern computer came into existence), and the programming language ADA was named in her honor.


Amalie Emmy Noether: 1882-1935, Germany

Considered by Einstein to be the most important woman in the history of mathematics, Emmy (as she generally went by) was an early twentieth century German mathematician with a passion for theoretical physics and abstract algebra. Noether was both an accomplished university professor and a prolific writer of mathematical papers, as well as someone with a profound ability to grasp abstract thought. As the Nazi stronghold grew in Germany during the 1930s, Emmy found herself, like so many other Jewish professors, barred from teaching. Towards the end of 1933, Noether was able to escape Germany and take up a position at the American college of Bryn Mawr. To this day Noether’s many contributions towards mathematics and theoretical physics are highly revered, and many remain relevant to the math of the  twenty-first century.

Katherine Johnson

Katherine Johnson: b. 1918, United States

Known for her accuracy in computerized celestial navigation, Johnson calculated the trajectory for the 1969 Apollo 11 flight to the Moon. She received her PhD in mathematics from West Virginia University and has authored 26 scientific papers. Johnson was named Mathematician of the Year in 1997 by the National Technical Association.

These remarkable women are only a handful of the many whose tireless work has had a lasting effect on the field of mathematics. Check out an additional display in the lobby of Proof celebrating the work of African American mathematical pioneers, including the accomplishments of five women.

Reserve your tickets now for Proof!

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