Although admired and called a “genius” by Albert Einstein, Amalie “Emmy” Noether, with seemingly total disregard for personal glory was unpaid and officially unrecognized for most of her university career in Europe.
The German Jewish mathematician’s work still serves as a foundation for higher academic exploration today. Her 133rd birthday was marked by a Google doodle on March 23, 2015.
The first child born to her Jewish family in Bavaria in 1882, Noether’s father Max was a mathematician who lectured at the University of Erlangen. With the support of mathematician Paul Gordon, she moved from her English and French language studies to pursue an education in math.
Noether was unable to enroll in classes and she and the other lone female student there were only officially permitted to proceed with their studies after asking permission from each lecturer. Despite the academic senate’s warning that coed education would “overthrow all academic order,” she passed exams and finished her dissertation in mathematics in 1907.
However, as a female scholar, she was unable to find a position, so she taught between 1908 and 1915 at the University of Erlangen’s Mathematical Institute without pay.
Eventually Noether took a position — also unpaid — at the University of Göttingen. There, one faculty member famously said of her appointment, “What will our soldiers think when they return to the university and find that they are required to learn at the feet of a woman?”
Noether supporter mathematician David Hilbert’s equally famous response was, “I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as privatdozent [an unsalaried lecturer]. After all, we are a university, not a bathhouse.”
Noether’s Göttingen lectures were advertised under Hilbert’s name and her family supported her financially until she was recognized by the state and received payment in 1923. It was there that she proved her eponymous theorem, which has been called by contemporaries as “possibly on a par with the Pythagorean theorem.”
‘I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as privatdozent [an unsalaried lecturer]. After all, we are a university, not a bath house’
By 1933, however, with the rise of the Third Reich, Noether saw her position and those of fellow Jewish academics stripped under the Hitler administration’s Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service. Colleagues describe her as philosophical about the change in status and she is said to have invited students to her home to continue their studies, even those in SS uniforms.
In late 1933, after hearing from students that “Aryan students want Aryan mathematics and not Jewish mathematics,” she realized she must now leave Germany. Noether was offered a position at Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania, and she also lectured weekly at Princeton.
Noether died suddenly at Bryn Mawr after an operation to remove cervical tumors on April 14, 1935.
After her death, Albert Einstein commemorated her in a letter to The New York Times, writing: “In the judgement of the most competent living mathematicians, Fraulein Noether was the most significant creative mathematical genius thus far produced since the higher education of women began.”
She is remembered as a true teacher who seemed unconcerned about receiving credit for her ideas, which often went to other male scholars. The pursuit of mathematics was the focus of her life, and social life was far behind.
At her memorial service, German mathematician Hermann Weyl said, “In the midst of the terrible struggle, destruction and upheaval that was going on around us in all factions, in a sea of hate and violence, of fear and desperation and dejection — you went your own way, pondering the challenges of mathematics with the same industriousness as before.
“When you were not allowed to use the institute’s lecture halls you gathered your students in your own home. Even those in their brown shirts were welcome; never for a second did you doubt their integrity. Without regard for your own fate, openhearted and without fear, always conciliatory, you went your own way,” said Weyl.