Friday, June 9, 2017

Charlotte Angas Scott - trailblazing mathematician

Charlotte Angas Scott (June 8, 1858 - November 10, 1931) was the first British woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, and one of the eight founding faculty at Bryn Mawr College.

Charlotte grew up in a somewhat unusual home in Lincolnshire, England, in the mid-1800s. Her father, a minister, and mother both believed in the value of education for girls as much as boys, and made sure Charlotte had tutors for all subjects, including math and science, starting at a very young age. So it's no surprise that she earned a scholarship to the recently opened women's Girton College, where she excelled in her studies.

In 1880, she obtained special permission to take the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos Exam -- the exam required to qualify for a bachelor's degree. Until then, only men were admitted, and even after she placed 8th overall she wasn't granted a degree, or allowed to attend the ceremony. Instead, she received a certificate and attended a special dinner in her honor at Girton. Even though she had to endure these insults, her performance opened the door to the Tripos for other women, the first of her many trail-blazing feats throughout her remarkable life.

Even so, in 1882, she was finally awarded her Bachelor of Science, and by 1885 she had earned her doctorate. During this time she taught other young women attending Girton, and reinforced her belief in the value of equal educational access for women.

In 1885 she was selected as one of the eight founding faculty members at the new American college for women, Bryn Mawr, where she served as Associate Professor of Mathematics. This was the role she had hoped for, and her entire career at Bryn Mawr was dedicated to improving the standards for women's education. In addition to serving as mentor to many of the women in mathematics who would go on to do great work, she was also responsible for setting the admission requirements for arithmetic  algebra, and geometry, and convinced the college to administer an entrance exam for math and science.

She also continued her own research, specializing in the planar geometry, and wrote and published over 30 papers as well as the text An Introductory Account of Certain Modern Ideas and Methods in Plane Analytical Geometry in 1894. In 1899 she was made co-editor of the American Journal of Mathematics, and her paper "A Proof of Noether's Fundamental Theorem" was published, quickly becoming the first research paper written in the US to find critical acclaim in Europe. (You might recognize the name Noether. In this case, it's referring to Max Noether, father of brilliant mathematician Emmy Noether.)

You can read more about her life and work at Biographies of Women Mathematicians.

And for even more info about her, check out Math History [PDF].

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