Sophie Germain
1776 1831

How would you feel if your parents kept you from learning? If they took away your light, your clothes, even your warmth. This is what happened to Sophie Germain, born in a time when it was frowned upon to allow women to learn.

The daughter of a wealthy upper class French family, Sophie Germain was born in 1776, the year of the American Revolution.

Sophie was thirteen years old when the Bastille fell. Paris was an unstable and dangerous city. During the next ten years of the French revolutionary violence, Sophie Germain spent much of her time confined to her house, reading in her father's library. Sophie found the depth and variety of her father's library a great help during the long days of solitude. As she was reading one day she came across a story of the death of the Greek mathematician Archimedes. Although Archimedes was a brilliant man, it was the way he died that left Sophie spellbound.

She read how Archimedes was slain through the side with a spear by a Roman soldier who was conquering the citizens of Syracuse. So engrossed was Archimedes in his geometric drawings that he failed to recognize his own danger. Sophie wanted to know what Archimedes was working on. What could be so engaging, so exciting, that a person would ignore their own impending death?

Her family agreed with the popular English notion of the time that "brainwork" was not healthy - even dangerous - for girls. They began to forbid Sophie from studying mathematics. Sophie, however, had a strong mind and was determined to educate herself. Night after night she crawled out of bed and studied after everyone else had gone to sleep. When Sophie's parents discovered this they took her lamps, hid her clothes and made sure there was no heat in her room. But Sophie smuggled candles into her room and continued her studies. When her parents found her one morning, sound asleep at her desk with her pen in a frozen ink well, they relented and allowed her studies. Without a tutor, Sophie spent the Reign of Terror, that unsettled time in France, teaching herself differential calculus.

When Sophie was eighteen, the Ecole Polytechnique, a technical academy established to train mathematicians and scientists, was founded. Sophie was denied admittance due to her sex but was able to obtain lecture notes from friends. Sophie was particularly interested in the lectures by Legrange, a notable mathematician of the time. When a paper was assigned, Sophie submitted one under the pen name of Monsier LeBlanc. Upon discovering the author was a woman, Legrange was astonished but, although bound by the prejudices of the time, recognized the abilities of Germain and began to help and encourage her.

In 1801, Germain once more took up pen and paper and wrote the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. Concerned that Gauss may also be prejudiced against women, she once again used the pen name of M. Le Blanc. As with Legrange before him, Gauss found her comments valuable and initiated correspondence. When Gauss discovered her true identity, he too, was open-minded about women scholars. Although the two never met, Gauss helped to inform his colleagues of Sophie's talent and accomplishments.

In 1816 Germain submitted her paper which won the grand prize from the French Academy for her work on the law of vibrating elastic surfaces. This theory helped to explain and predict the unusual patterns formed by sand or powder on elastic surfaces when they were vibrated. Such studies in elasticity made the construction of the Eiffel Tower possible.

Sophie Germain died in 1831 at the age of 55. She had been in pain for two years, suffering from breast cancer. She died shortly before she was to receive an honorary doctor's degree from the University of Gottingen. There she was also to have finally met Gauss, who had recommended that the degree be granted her.

Contributed by Carol Conrad

References:

  1. Osen, Lynn M. Women in Mathematics, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974.
  2. Perl, Teri. Math Equals; Biographies of Women Mathematicians. California: Addison- Wesley Publishing Company, 1978.
  3. Reimer, Luetta, and Wilbert Reimer. Mathematicians Are People, Too. California: Dale Seymour Publication, 1990.

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