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Stories About Famous Mathematicians

by Dr. Margaret Taplin
Institute of Sathya Sai Education, Hong Kong

When you are teaching the appropriate topic, take a minute to tell your pupils an anecdote about one of the famous mathematicians who contributed to this particular field of mathematics. It is important for pupils to be aware of the 'human' side of these famous people. "Using biographies of mathematicians can successfully bring the human story into the mathematics class. What struggles have these people undergone to be able to study mathematics?..." (Voolich, 1993, p.16)

Mary Somerville
Born 1780 in Burntisland, Scotland
Examples of Contribution to Mathematics: algebra, differential and
integral calculus
Mary was one of the world's first famous female mathematicians. She became interested in mathematics, and desperately wanted to study it, at a time when it was not considered acceptable for a woman to do so. She bought books on algebra and geometry and read them at night. Despite disapproval from the people around her, she persisted with her struggle to learn. Later in her life she began to solve problems in a magazine, and won a prize for her solution to an algebra problem. She went on to write several books about mathematics and science. Later in her life, she reflected on "the long course of years in which I had persevered almost without hope. It taught me never to despair" ( p.6).

"Mary Somerville used an approach to her work that is useful today. If she couldn't find the key to unlock a difficult problem she stopped work and turned to the piano, her needlework, or a walk outdoors. Afterward, she returned to the problem with her mind refreshed and could find the solution. If she could not understand a passage in her reading, she would read on for several pages. Then, going back, she could often understand what was meant in the part which had been confusing" (p.12).

Perl (1993)

Maria Agnesi
(1718-1799) Italy
Examples of Contribution to Mathematics: calculus
"Maria was a child prodigy, but was also shy. She stayed at home, teaching the younger children and following her own studies. When her mother died after giving birth to twenty-one children, Maria took over the running of the household. At the age of twenty she started a ten year project, a book bringing together the work on calculus of Leibnitz and Newton titled Analytic Institutions. Sometimes she would have trouble with a problem. But her mind went on working even in her sleep; she would sleep-walk to her study and back to bed. In the morning, she would find the answer to the problem waiting on her desk. Her book made her famous; she was living proof of what she had argued at nine years old [that women had a right to study science]. But Maria had other interests in her life apart from mathematics. She had always worked with the poor people in her area, and she had asked her father for separate rooms and turned them into a private hospital. She worked at the hospital (and another) until she died at the age of eighty-one. Maria Agnesi wrote an important book on mathematics, as well as another unpublished book. She ran a household of over twenty people, and she worked for people who had not had her luck and opportunities. Each one of these things was remarkable, but she did them all."

(Lovitt and Clarke, 1992, p.560)

Mary Everett Boole
Born 1832 in England and lived in Poissy, France as a child
Examples of Contribution to Mathematics:

geometry of angles and space; string geometry (curve stitching), mathematical psychology (understanding how people learn mathematics)

As a young girl, Mary was very compassionate towards animals. Perl reported that she frequently rescued insects that had been hurt by frost or rain, and nursed them back to health. As an adult, she worked as a librarian in a women's college, and showed the same compassion in becoming a friend and mentor to the students. She invited students to discussion sessions about mathematics and science, and one of these students later wrote; "I found you have given us a power. We can think for ourselves, and find out what we want to know" (p.50). Even as an old lady, during World War I, Mary opened her house to people who needed to "find a quiet place for an hour, away from the turmoil of a country at war and the terrible news in the newspapers" (p.55).

Perl (1993)


"We all have something within us which helps us, guides us, gives us the conscience to know what is right and wrong. This "something" also gives us knowledge and wisdom. Whenever we cannot think of a solution to a problem we sit still and calm our mind. Very often the answer will come in a moment of intuition. Sir Isaac Newton, after thinking for some time on the effect of gravity, could not solve the problem. So Newton went for a walk to relax and when sitting quietly under an apple tree, saw an apple fall down; in a flash of understanding Newton understood the law of gravity which governs the movement of minute particles as well as the stars and planets. Many great scientific discoveries have been made not during serious thinking or when doing a lot of calculations but while the mind is relaxed. This is when intuition starts."

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Last Modified 05 Mar 2015