Diversity Dialogues - Sister Mary de Lellis Gough

By Marilyn Mays posted 03-19-2021 14:53:12


Sister Mary de Lellis Gough: The First Irish Woman with a Doctorate in Maths

March was designated as Women’s History Month in the United States in 1985. Six years later, the same month was chosen, not by accident, as Irish-American History Month. March 17 was already very important to many Irish everywhere as St. Patrick’s Day. What first comes to mind when one thinks of the Emerald Isle is usually shamrocks and fish and chips or, for those more concerned with erudition, scholars such as James Joyce or Oscar Wilde. But it should be noted that the country has well-known scholars in many fields, including mathematics. While there were men pursuing mathematics from the earliest years of civilization, women were traditionally prevented from pursuing knowledge related to science and math, areas more appropriate for men. So it is a little easier to designate one person as the first female mathematician. There are many things to consider when deciding on the title of the first Irish female mathematician:

  • the first to receive any degree in maths, as mathematics is referred to in the U.K.?;
  • the first to receive a doctorate in maths?;
  • must the mathematician receive one or both of the degrees in Ireland?; or
  • just be born in Ireland?

Margaret Gough, who later would be known as Sister Mary de Lellis Gough, was born in February in Rickardstown, Kilmore, Wexford, Ireland, in 1892. She completed her schooling under nuns in Wexford and emigrated to Texas in the USA in September 1909. In Texas, she joined the Sisters of Charity and soon started teaching at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio. She took leave on occasion from Incarnate Word to attend the Catholic University in Washington, DC, and eventually earned a B.A. and an M.A. from that institution in 1923. Her Master’s thesis was on “The Representability of a Number by an Indefinite Binary Quadratic Form.” In 1931 she was awarded a Ph.D., the first Irish-born and educated woman known to have accomplished that. Her 26-page thesis was entitled “On the Condition for the Existence of Triangles In-and-Circumscribed to Certain Types of Rational Quartic Curve and Having a Common Side.” She lived in the United States for seventy-four years and continued to teach mathematics classes for about another nine years.

Not much is known about her life, probably due to her belonging to a religious order. No picture of her is known to exist. She is credited for coining the term ‘Mathephobia’ because she had observed the phenomenon in her students, more in girls than in boys. She obviously understood the condition very well because she described it as a “disease that proves fatal before its presence is detected.” About nine years after earning her doctorate, she developed a physical condition that caused her to give up teaching. She worked for two decades as an accountant in Fort Worth, Texas.

Source: The Real First Irish Woman with a Doctorate in Maths? (Jan 2020). (2020, January). Plone Site.