Ruth Lawrence was only 10 years old when she became the youngest person ever admitted to Oxford University in 1981. Home-schooled by her domineering father in the field of mathematics since age five, she completed her degree in two years and was hailed in the British media as an unprecedented child prodigy.
Thirty-five years later, in a remarkable reorientation of her life, Lawrence lives in Israel as an Orthodox Jewish woman, the Daily Mail revealed on Friday, in an article headlined, “What became of Britain’s most famous prodigy?” A 44-year-old mother of four, she teaches in the field of mathematical knots at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, leading a quiet, ordinary life.
It is not the future her father Harry had in mind. A former math and science teacher who went on to work in computing, Harry left it all behind in 1976 to focus on his daughter’s education.
It was not his first attempt at mentoring a wunderkind, according to the Mail. Harry was a father of three other children from a previous marriage, and had attempted a similar experiment with one of the girls. His wife eventually left him and took the kids with her, increasingly anxious over his educational approach.
But Harry’s second wife Sylvia (Greybourne) was more accommodating. He was allowed to pour his ambitions into Ruth’s tutoring, though his younger daughter Rebecca was mostly spared.
Ruth graduated Oxford at age 13, and completed a Doctor of Philosophy (DPhil) degree in mathematics there in June 1989, aged 17.
Ruth later moved to the US after receiving work offers at Harvard — where she became a junior fellow at age 19 — and later at the University of Michigan. Her father followed her there.
The two were inseparable, spending much of their time together as he continued to groom her to excel. Her mother (now also separated from Harry) and sister Rebecca were left behind.
But in 1997 Ruth finally parted ways with her father. Having fallen in love with Israeli mathematician Ariyeh Neimark, she followed him to Israel, learned Hebrew and became Jewishly observant. She became an associate professor at Hebrew University in 1999. “The couple moved into a flat in a drab suburb and Ruth became an observant Jew,” the Mail reported. The article’s only mention of her religious background is that “her father has Jewish heritage but is not practicing.”
Whether the split with Harry was amicable remains a matter of some ambiguity. In the intervening years, his methods of intensive tutoring have come under considerable criticism, often cited as an example of the problematic nature of “hothousing” children.
Ruth herself has stated that she would never put her kids through the same experiences, which included a ban on friends her age as a child — as her father feared their “trivial conversation and pointless playing” would hold her back. She wants her children to grow up “normal and naturally,” the British newspaper reported.
Speaking to the Daily Mail recently, Lawrence senior, who still lives in Michigan, insisted the two remained on good terms. He said he was “immensely proud” of her, and was quick to stress that the fact she had never become a world-renowned genius was not a “failure” in his mind.
“She’s influencing the lives of hundreds of people who will become mathematicians and physicists who will make a huge contribution to the world. Who’s to say that isn’t more worthwhile than a firework that produces something astounding?”
Harry said the two speak on the phone regularly, and meet when she visits the US for work once or twice a year. “There was never any rupture, there was no reason for it. Girls grow up and they become women,” he said. He also claimed Ruth had originally asked him to move with her to Israel.
Asked if he missed her, Lawrence demurred. “I don’t know. Obviously… yes and no. This is such a difficult thing — I mean does anyone miss their children when they leave?”