STEM Women Hall of Fame: The Mother of Modern Algebra

Cristen Conger

STEM Women Hall of Fame Facts: Emmy Noether

  • Born: March 23, 1882
  • STEM Legacy: Noether's Theorem, which she proved in 1915, states that for any continuous symmetry in a physical system, a corresponding conservation law exists.
  • Historical context: Since women (aka proper young ladies) weren't expected to - and sometimes weren't allowed to - pursue higher education in the late 1800s and early 1900s, Noether continually skirted gender discrimination and institutional rules in order to pursue mathematics.

The New York Times headlined a recent write-up on her "Emmy Noether, the Most Significant Mathematician You've Never Heard Of." The Encyclopaedia Britannica describes as her as "the most creative abstract algebraist of modern times." Albert Einstein even called her "the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began."

So who is this German mathematical genius? Emmy Noether was a tenacious academic from a STEM-minded family with a math professor father and two brothers would become scientists. After completing a socially sanctioning "finishing school" for women in 1900, Noether audited university classes until 1904 when the University of Erlangen began admitting women; just three years later, she received her math PhD.

From there through the early 1920s, she worked as a university lecturer, though often unpaid, without a title and sometimes under a male pseudonym. Through her research during this time (she went on to publish more than 40 academic papers), Noether worked alongside notable mathematicians and physicists, including Einstein. And although male faculty weren't always keen on her rare female presence, Noether's groundbreaking work in abstract algebra also attracted a small band of mathematical acolytes who followed her to various teaching positions, whom she fondly named "Noether's boys."

In 1933, Hitler overtook Germany and banned all Jewish professors from teaching. As a result of the persecution, Noether headed to the United States to take a position at the all-women's Bryn Mawr College, where she was swiftly embraced. Soon after, in 1935, she died unexpectedly following complications from surgery to remove an ovarian cyst.