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The Most Important Woman In 20th-Century Mathematics: Emmy Noether

October 25, 2021
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By Lillie Therieau 


Who did Albert Einstein regard as the most important woman in mathematics? That honor goes to Emmy Noether, a prolific mathematician, and physicist working in the early 20th-century. 


Besides working in a male-dominated field and fighting for recognition at every turn, Emmy also had to contend with the turmoil and chaos of the Nazi takeover in Germany. As a Jewish woman in academia, she was a high-profile target for the Nazi party. Although she successfully escaped Germany and came to America, many of her colleagues and family members were not so lucky. 


Emmy Noether’s life is an empowering and illuminating example of someone who loves what they do so much that they persevere despite nearly insurmountable obstacles. 


Portrait of Emmy Noether, Image: Wikipedia

Portrait of Emmy Noether, Image: Wikipedia


Battling For Recognition In Early 20th-Century Germany 


Emmy Noether was born in Erlangen, Germany in 1882. Her father was a well-known mathematician who lectured at the local university. She wasn’t particularly gifted in academics as a child, especially rebelling against the predetermined set of subjects that women at the time were expected to study. After high school, her family expected her to end her studies and take the exam to become a teacher, but she decided to continue at the University of Erlangen. 


It was an unexpected decision. As one of two women in a school of almost 1,000 students, she had to fight to continue learning what she was interested in. Emmy wasn’t even allowed to fully participate in the classes she attended and was limited to auditing the lectures. However, her voracious curiosity and determination paid off, and she passed her final exams in 1903. 


The next year, Emmy reentered the University of Erlangen, intending to earn a higher degree in mathematics. She finished her dissertation, which focused on ternary biquadratic forms, in 1907. It was well-received by her peers and Emmy was offered a teaching position at the university. However, there was a catch--it was unpaid. 


She taught for almost seven years without a salary, often filling in for her father as his health declined. Despite the limitations of her position and the inherent prejudices of her male colleagues, Emmy enjoyed the collaborative atmosphere of teaching higher-level math classes and took full advantage of sitting in on the lectures of other professors.

In 1915, she was offered a position at the University of Göttingen by old acquaintances, David Hilbert and Felix Klein. Hilbert had been a particular source of inspiration for Emmy and she spent many hours poring over his work. However, when she got to Göttingen, she realized that the situation there was not much better for women in academics. 


Emmy Noether’s Unexpected Teaching Style 


Although Klein and Hilbert advocated for her hiring, there was a huge backlash from male faculty members who thought that working alongside a woman would discredit their work. Emmy wasn’t fazed and kept at her work, eventually impressing even the most skeptical of her peers. In 1919, she was finally allowed to go through the tenure process. She passed with flying colors, although she was still unpaid. 


Her long tenure at the University of Göttingen was hugely influential to generations of German students. She had a wild and unexpected teaching style, which included never planning her lectures and embracing spontaneity. She taught extra classes outside of the school, taking her students through the woods, to coffee shops, and even into her home. Her students were known as the “Noether boys,” a group of would-be mathematicians that followed Emmy eagerly, asking her endless questions and reveling in her love of math. 


It wasn’t until the 1930s that Emmy started to gain the recognition that she deserved. In 1932, she won the Ackermann-Teubner Memorial Award. The prestigious award compelled her colleagues to pressure the university to finally recognize her as a full professor, which they did that same year. 


Emmy Noether’s Expulsion From Germany 


However, a dark cloud hung over Emmy’s newfound success. The Nazis were gaining power in Germany and Emmy was a certain target, as a Jewish woman academic who had at one time shown sympathy for communism. One of the first actions of the Nazi Party, when they came to power, was to remove all Jewish professors from university positions. Emmy calmly accepted her notice of termination and began searching for a position in the United States. 


Many American colleges were offering support to their Jewish-German colleagues and sponsoring them as they undertook the intercontinental journey. Emmy was offered a position at Bryn Mawr University by an administration thrilled to have her. It was a refreshing change to be immediately welcomed to the institution despite her gender! 


Emmy taught at both Bryn Mawr and Princeton until 1935 when doctors discovered a cyst the size of a melon on her ovaries. She had immediate surgery and appeared to be on the road to recovery for several days. However, on the fourth day, her temperature spiked to almost 110 degrees Fahrenheit and she died at the age of 53. 


The Most Important Woman In Mathematics: The Legacy and Work of Emmy Noether 


Emmy Noether is best known for her work on commutative rings (otherwise known as Noether rings), linear transformations, and commutative number fields. Noether was also famous for her use of descending and ascending chain conditions. 


Although chain conditions had already been discovered, they were viewed as general tools that could be applied to many different areas of mathematics and which weren’t very useful. However, Noether showed that they could be very powerful and helpful, especially in the field of abstract algebra.


Today, Emmy Noether’s legacy has been well-established. She’s acknowledged as totally revolutionizing the fields of theoretical physics and algebra, and even seen as one of the most important mathematicians in the 20th century. There is even a crater on the moon named after her, as well as a small planet! 


The Inspiring Lives of Famous Mathematicians 


This article is the third in our series exploring the lives and achievements of famous mathematicians throughout history. (Our last article was about the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan!) 


Through the lives of these brilliant folks, we hope you’ll find connections, inspiration, and empowerment.


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