The First Irish Woman with a Doctorate in Maths (Feb 2017)

This month's blog is about quest to identify the first Irish woman with a doctorate in maths. When it was first written, in February 2017, we noted that "Readers will learn a little about her, including where she was born and educated, and what she did with her life professionally.  We'll even share a photograph of her; yet some uncertainty remains as to what her name is!  Please read on, and be rewarded with an opportunity to vote for her (whoever she may be) at the very end of the blog."  (Added January 2020: a display of the results of the 16 votes received in the early months of 2017.)

The whole subject was revisited in a followup blog in January 2020, where a different conclusion was reached in the light of new evidence: a new, previously overlooked contender had been discovered. That linked blog was further updated in October 2022 to include more details about (and a photograph of) the pioneering women who highlighted there, who makes no appearance below!

For Irish women, in times long past, the earliest forays into the world of research mathematics were often restricted to astronomical work, such as orbital calculations, or other non-academic roles.  Notable names in that arena were Mary Clerke (1842-1907, born in Skibbereen), Alice Everett (1865-1949, born in Glasgow, raised in Belfast), and Annie Maunder (née Russell, 1868-1947, born in Strabane).

The educational and professional limitations imposed on women up until the late 19th century, not just in Ireland and Britain but everywhere, resulted in little or no female access to postgraduate research.  For the record, the doctorate per se wasn't even that common for men seeking careers in academia until well into the 20th century.

Hence, if we were to ask,

"Who was the first Irish woman in maths with a doctorate?"

one presumably doesn't have to look back too far to give a definitive response.

In what follows we offer several answers to that query (and similar puzzlers). At the very end below we invite readers to vote for their preferred answer to the more reasonable twist on the question that's implicit in the title of this month's blog.

Please don't vote until considering the complex evidence about to be presented!


The answer to the question "Who was the first Irish woman in maths with a doctorate?" is certainly Sophie Bryant, born in 1850, in Sandymount, Dublin. But that turns out to be a trick answer, to a tricky question. 

Sophie was educated at home (in Antrim, Fermanagh and London) by her mathematician and clergyman father, who had been a Fellow & Tutor at TCD.  Her Doctor of Science from the University of London in 1884 puts her far ahead of the competition; moreover, she was the first woman in Britain or Ireland to get a DSc in any field.

The only catch is that it her thesis wasn't in maths, but in mental and moral sciences ("psychology and ethics" is a rough modern translation). However her 1881 bachelor's degree from the same institution (in the first year that this new university awarded degrees) was in that subject and maths.  In 1884, she also became the first woman to publish a paper, on "The ideal geometrical form of natural cell structure," in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society.


Jumping forward half a century we encounter Eithne Donnelly, born in Dublin in 1900. Her BA in maths from 1921 was among the very earliest ones awarded to an Irish Catholic woman by TCD.  In the 1930s she earned an MA at UCD.  Trinity awarded her a PhD in 1943, and they now have a prize in her name.  Hers is almost certainly the first Irish doctorate awarded to a female maths graduate for research done in the country. 

However, her thesis was called "Social services in Éire," and seems to have been done in the department of economics.  Her master's had been in history. Little is known of her career except that she taught before her PhD, did a postdoc at the University of Madison at Wisconsin, and tutored computer science in her later years while wintering in Nairobi, Kenya. She was also known for her historical broadcasts on Raidió Éireann.


Two years before Donnelly's doctorate there was the 1941 PhD from the University of Edinburgh, under Max Born, on "Stability in Crystals" by Sheila Power. She was born in 1918 in Galway, where her father was professor of maths at UCG. She went to university there for a year before switching to UCD, where she earned her BSc in 1938 and MSc in 1939. 

After her PhD, dated 15 May 1941, which she was awarded at the age of 23, she worked at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), and then for many decades at UCD, specialising in quantum mechanics. Having married along the way, she is remembered today as Sheila Tinney.  There seems little doubt that she is the first Irish-born and Irish-educated woman to receive a doctorate in the mathematical sciences anywhere.


It was also in 1941 that Belfast's Muriel Wales (née Kennett, born in 1913) got her PhD on "Theory of Algebraic Functions Based on the Use of Cycles" from the University of Toronto, surely making her the first Irish-born woman to receive a doctorate in pure maths.  Thanks to Marge Murray of the University of Iowa for alerting us to this one.

Muriel Kennett was born in 1913, on Bray Street in the Shankill area, but soon thereafter her mother relocated to Vancouver, in British Columbia, and remarried. Hence, the future mathematician acquired the name Wales, "by marriage," as it were. She got her bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of British Columbia in 1934 and 1937, respectively, the latter for a thesis in algebra.   She worked in the Canadian atomic energy programme after her PhD, but by the end of the 1940s she had left mathematics entirely.


The first Irish woman (and Irish graduate) to receive a doctorate in pure maths may well have been Barbara Yates. She was born in 1919 to a Dublin family who soon moved to Belfast.  Like her father and two brothers before her, she got a maths degree from TCD. 

Unlike them, she went further, completing her PhD on "A difference-differential equation" in 1952 at Aberdeen, under E. M. Wright (of Hardy & Wright fame).  It was awarded in 1953, and her long academic career was spent at Royal Holloway in London.


A little earlier, in 1951, a former Alexandra College pupil earned her PhD on "Contracting Spherical Shocks Treated by a Perturbation Method," at NYU.  She went on to a very distinguished career at the Courant Institute, and also served as the president of the American Mathematical Society

She was born Cathleen Synge in 1923, in Toronto, to Irish parents, and spent five years of her childhood in Dublin when her father, distinguished mathematical physicist John Lighton Synge, returned to take up a post at his alma mater TCD. Better known by her married name Cathleen Morawetz, she is now enjoying retirement in her Greenwich Village home, as is her 101-year old husband. [ADDENDUM: she died in Aug 2017]


The Irish astronomy gene continued to thrive in the 1900s, eventually leading to doctorates for some women.  Astronomer Mary Brück (née Conway, born in Ballivor, Meath in 1925) was awarded BSc and MSc (in 1945 and 1946, respectively) from UCD, as Máire Ní Chonmhidhe.  She obtained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh, in 1950, and her career was spent at Dunsink and then the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.


The most well known Irish astronomer of the last half century may well be Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born in Lurgan, Armagh, in 1943), co-discoverer of pulsars, who obtained her Cambridge PhD in 1969. Her career has included spells at the Universities of Southampton, London, Bath and Oxford, as well as the Royal Observatory Edinburgh and the Open University.  She is currently pro-chancellor of TCD.

Readers may have noticed that none of the mathematical doctorates discussed above were awarded by Irish universities.  That all changed in 1964, when UCC bestowed the PhD on Siobhán Vernon (née O'Shea, born Macroom, Cork, in 1932). Her dissertation was entitled "Some results in classical analysis" and consisted of several previously published papers.

A UCC graduate, she'd been on the staff there since 1957, where colleague Paddy Kennedy had urged her to submit her earlier research in this form for the PhD.  While he was officially her advisor, the research she'd done was not completed under his guidance in the traditional advisor/postgraduate way.  (By the time she turned in the thesis, he was well settled in as the first professor of maths in England's newly founded York University.)


 (UCD's Aoibhinn Ní Shúilleabháin with Nóra Ní Chuív, 2016)

So who was the first Catholic Irish-born and -bred woman to obtain a pure maths PhD in the time-honoured way after several years working with an advisor?  It appears to have been UCD graduate Nóra Ní Chuív (born in 1942, in Dublin), who went on to do her PhD in 1973 on “On the Closure of Modules on a Compact Set in a Stein Manifold” at the University of Washington (Seattle). Her entire career was spent at the University of New Brunswick in Canada, where she published in probability and software reliability testing. There is now a scholarship there in her name which supports female postgraduates in financial need.

She came by her interest in mathematics honestly, her grandfather Éamon de Valera having enthusiastically introduced her to quaternions when she was young. ("Dev"---as he was known to all---had his own close call with a life in academia over a century ago; and as Taoiseach he left a huge mark on the Irish intellectual scene by founding the DIAS in 1940.)  Nóra is now happily retired and back in Dublin.

As discovered above, "Who was the first Irish woman in maths with a doctorate?" turns out not to be the right question.

"Who was the first Irish woman with a doctorate in maths?"

is perhaps a better one, though opinions on the correct answer to that will also vary.

Please consider taking the one-question survey after the table below; we are very interested in how this issue is perceived by readers with a reasonable command of the available evidence. 

None of this gets us much closer to answering a related question that now begs to be asked:

"Who was the first Irish-born and -bred woman to obtain a
pure maths PhD at an Irish university with a standard thesis
resulting from several years working with a doctoral advisor?"

That one will have to wait for another day.

The following table may help to keep track of basic information on the 10 women highlighted above. It lists advisors, links to details about the doctorates---in most cases at the Mathematics Genealogy Project---and has information about approximate subject areas.

First name Last name Lifespan Origin Year

PhD Univ



Bryant (née Willock)

1850-1922 Dublin / Antrim / Fermanagh 1884

University of London


Mental and moral science
Eithne Donnelly 1900-1989 Dublin 1943


(Joseph Johnston)


Wales (née Kennett)

1913-2009 Belfast 1941

University of Toronto

(Samuel Beatty)


Tinney (née Power)

1918-2005 Galway 1941

University of Edinburgh

(Max Born)

Maths Physics
Barbara Yates 1919-1998  Dublin 1952

University of Aberdeen

(Edward Wright)


Morawetz (née Synge)

1923-2017 Toronto 1951


(Kurt Friedrichs)


Brück (née Conway)

1925-2008 Meath 1950

University of Edinburgh

(Mervyn Ellison)


Vernon (née O'Shea)

1932-2002 Cork 1964



Joycelyn Burnell (née Bell) 1943- Armagh 1969

University of Cambridge

(Antony Hewish)

Nóra Ní Chuív 1942- Dublin 1973

University of Washington

(Lutz Bungart)





[Added 30 January 2020] Even with all the known facts laid out before one, reasonable people will not all answer this question in the same way. In the early months of 2017, we received 16 votes as shown below. That includes a vote from the current author, who immediately realised that he had voted for the wrong person.


New information came to light in late 2019 which necessitates revisiting this question with a larger slate of candidates, and the conclusion is that the first Irish woman with a doctorate in maths wasn't even mentioned in the above piece.


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