A few days ago, Prof. Karen Uhlenbeck (University of Texas in Austin) was awarded the Abel Prize by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the closest one can get to the Nobel Prize, being the first woman to receive such an honour. The presence of women in STEM seems to be still to many something of a eccentricity, although Prof. Uhlenbeck is far from being the first woman mathematician who might have deserve it.
In the year 1900, the corridors of the University of Erlangen, in Bavaria, echoed the footsteps of its two first female students: Fanny Fuchs, who enrolled to study medicine in 1903, and Emmy Noether, who was the first full-time female student and completed her doctoral degree in 1908 in the field of mathematics. Emmy Noether will eventually acquire worldwide fame not only for the theorem that bears her name – which she proved in 1915 and published in 1918 – but also for her ground-breaking research in the fields of abstract algebra and theoretical physics. After completing her doctoral dissertation, she was invited to join the University of Göttingen in Saxony, first without an academic position, and then eventually as professor of special status. Nevertheless, even when her colleagues distinguished her for her contributions to mathematics, she was neither made full professor nor invited to join the Academy of Sciences, despite having enough merits and publications to do so.
Her life, as that of many other academics and scientist of Jewish origin, was truncated when she was expelled from Göttingen by the Third Reich. Like others, such as Albert Einstein, she went to the United States, and arrived at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania in the autumn of 1933. She returned briefly to Germany in 1934 to see friends and family for the last time. In the spring of 1935 she underwent surgery to remove a tumour and died probably from sepsis following the operation. Her ashes are placed under the cloisters of Bryn Mawr College. Admired by her colleagues, from Albert Einstein to Pavel Alexandrov, who in his memorial address to her said Emmy Noether had been “the greatest woman mathematician of all time”, and adored by her students, whom she trained with patience, her revolutionary theories on rings and fields are key to the study of theoretical physics and dynamical systems. Einstein, in the tribute he wrote in The New York Times upon her passing, said: “In the judgment of the most competent living mathematicians, Fräulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began. In the realm of algebra, in which the most gifted mathematicians have been busy for centuries, she discovered methods which have proved of enormous importance in the development of the present-day younger generation of mathematicians.”