Sheila Power (later Tinney), Pioneering Irish Mathematical Physicist (Jan 2018)


15 Jan 2018 marked what would have been the 100th birthday of quantum physicist Sheila Christina Power (1918-2010) of Galway city, remembered in modern times by her married name Sheila Tinney.  She was a long-serving professor of maths physics at University College Dublin (UCD), where she worked from 1941 to 1978, at one time being the acting department head, and she introduced generations of students at Earlsfort Terrace and Belfield to quantum mechanics.

(1942 at Áras an Uachtaráin, with Paul Dirac and Athur Eddington)


She didn't marry until 1952, long after she blazed a trail as a student, postgraduate, UCD staff member and--in 1949, in the first cohort of elected females--as a member of the Royal Irish Academy.  She attended the Dominicans both at Taylor's Hill in Galway and St Mary's in Cabra in Dublin. In 1935, she was one of only 8 girls nationally to get honours maths in the Leaving Certificate exam, a year in which 126 boys did so. She then attended UCG (University College Galway, now the National University of Ireland Galway) for one year, where her father Michael Power (1885-1974) was professor of maths from 1912 to 1955, before switching to UCD.

(1943 image courtesy of the Tinney family)


Her BSc in 1938 saw her at the top of her class, and her MSc in 1939 was accompanied by an NUI Travelling Studentship Prize, which enabled her to go to the University of Edinburgh. (Her Kilkenny born father had won the same prize 30 year earlier, also at UCD).  In 1941, at the age of 23, she earned her PhD on "Stability in Crystals" under future Nobel prize winner Max Born.

(1941 thesis sample pages, images courtesy of the Tinney family)

A year ago here, we tongue-in-cheek asked  "Who was the first Irish woman in maths with a doctorate?". The point was that to avoid ambiguity one has to be very specific about what is meant by some of those words, notably "first", "Irish" and "maths"!  The Sheila Tinney Wikipedia page correctly quotes her MacTutor biography to the effect that "Her 1941 PhD from the University of Edinburgh, completed under the supervision of Max Born in just two years, is believed to make her the first Irish-born and Irish-raised woman to receive a doctorate in the mathematical sciences." (An older Belfast-born woman, Muriel Wales, who grew up in Canada, also completed her PhD in algebra the same year, in Toronto. The first Irish-born and Irish-raised woman to complete a PhD in pure maths, as opposed to mathematical science, seems to have been Barbara Yates, in 1952.)

Following her PhD, Sheila Power returned to Dublin, joined the maths department at UCD, and was also appointed to a part-time associate researcher at the brand new Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. The DIAS head, Nobel Laureate Erwin Schrödinger, described her as "among the best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of physicists in this country".  She was a regular participant in seminars and colloquia there, and is featured in many of the group photos of the period.

Her Irish Times obituary noted: "She published papers – some alone, others with the collaboration or advice of such great figures as Schrödinger, Yukawa (both Nobel laureates) and Heitler – on a wide range of topics including crystal lattices, wave mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, cosmic radiation and meson theory."  She also published with H W Peng , another PhD student of Max Born's and another inaugural DIAS research associate. (He remained in Dublin for six years before returning to China and eventually heading up the nuclear programme there.)

Sheila Power was promoted to statutory lecturer at UCD in 1945. The academic year 1948-1949 was spent on leave at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton (after which DIAS had been modelled), where she rubbed shoulders with Albert Einstein, Richard Feymnan, and Freeman Dyson.  She also enjoyed horseback riding there--despite suffering a concussion following a fall when her horse was alarmed by a snake--and learnt how to ski.

(1949 image courtesy of the Tinney family)


The wheels of Irish academic bureaucracy were slow to turn when it came to recognising high achievement by women, and it wasn't until 1966 that UCD promoted her to associate professor of quantum theory.  For many decades, she had a very heavy teaching load serving three constituencies: undergrads and postgrads in science, as well as notoriously boisterous engineers, one of whom, Seán Tinney, she married in 1952.  He had a long career in the ESB, shared her love of music, and in time served as President of the Royal Dublin Society.


(1978 photo with UCD maths physics colleagues: Dermot McCrea,
Michael Hayes, John Kennedy, Tom Ambrose, Peter Currie,
David Judge; image courtesy of the late Michael Hayes)

Following early retirement in 1978, she found more time to devote to passions such as hill-walking, tennis, golf and her beloved piano, which she first become enamoured with thanks to her mother Christina Cunniffe.  Her own three children have pursued various careers: Hugh Tinney is a distinguished concert pianist, Ethna Tinney (also a pianist) has been a producer with RTÉ Lyric fm, and Deirdre Tinney holds a PhD in political science from UCD.

In the past few years, Sheila Power/Tinney's name and accomplishments have received some long-overdue recognition.  The Undergraduate Awards chose Sheila Tinney as the role model of 2016 by giving every awardee a special medal with her likeness.

(2016 Undergraduate Awards medal)


That same year, the Royal Irish Academy honoured her along with eleven other Irish women academics by joining with Accenture to commission their portraits for the Women on Walls project.  These became the first female images ever to go on display on the RIA walls, and the public unveiling was well attended. They can be viewed by the public today at Academy House, 19 Dawson Street, Dublin 2.

(2016 portrait by Vera Klute)


RTE covered the story in detail in a March 2017 documentary.  The whole 50 minutes long programme can be viewed here.

(Excerpt from RTE programme on Women on Walls highlighting the
Sheila Tinney portrait, including family interviews and comments)
What would Sheila Tinney--a gracious, kind, patient, hardworking and multi-talented woman who started her life a century ago at 9 St Mary’s Terrace, Taylor's Hill, Galway--make of all the fuss if she were here today?  As her son Hugh observed in the video clip above, in the context of having her portrait painted, she'd have been tickled pink.


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