Grace Emily Chisholm Young

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Grace Emily Chisholm Young


British Mathematician

Several years before Emmy Noether (1882-1935) entered the University of Göttingen, Grace Chisholm Young earned her doctorate there in 1895, becoming the first woman to officially receive a Ph.D. in any field from a German university. Later, she conducted research in derivatives of real functions, which yielded the Denjoy-Saks-Young theorem. Other important work appeared as a collaboration between Young and her husband, William Henry Young (1863-1942).

The youngest of Henry and Anna Bell Chisholm's three surviving children, Young was born on March 15, 1868, in Haslemere, Surrey, England. Her father was a civil servant who became director of Britain's bureau of weights and measures, and her brother Hugh later earned distinction as editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica's eleventh edition. Initially she wanted to study medicine, something her mother forbade, so in 1889 Young entered Girton College, a school for women at Cambridge. She graduated in 1892 with first-class honors, and she later sat informally for the mathematics finals at Oxford. She placed first.

Thus Young was eminently qualified to become a pioneer for women's education, and in 1893 she transferred to what was then the leading European center for mathematical education: Göttingen. Working under the distinguished mathematician Felix Klein (1849-1925), in 1895 she earned her doctorate, magna cum laude, with a thesis on "The Algebraic Groups of Spherical Trigonometry."

Back in London, she married her former tutor at Girton, William Henry Young, and the couple soon moved to Göttingen. In time they would have six children, yet Grace managed to raise them while conducting mathematical work of her own, collaborating with her husband—and studying anatomy. The Youngs in 1905 coauthored a well-known textbook on set theory, and in the period between 1914 and 1916 she published papers on derivatives of real functions. These contributed to the formulation of what became known as the Denjoy-Saks-Young theorem.

In 1908 the family moved to Geneva, Switzerland, which remained their base thereafter. Financial needs, however, forced Henry to take teaching posts at a variety of places ranging from Wales to Calcutta, and this in turn kept him separated from the family for long periods of time. Meanwhile their children grew up. Their son Frank, an aviator, was killed during World War I, but the others went on to successful careers in fields that included medicine, chemistry, and mathematics.

During the late 1920s, by which point she was entering her sixties, Young largely abandoned mathematics for other pursuits, including language studies, music, medicine, and literature. She was particularly fond of writing, and took an interest in becoming an author of children's fiction. In the spring of 1940, she visited England while her husband remained in Switzerland. This parting would turn out to be their last, because the Nazi invasion of France prevented either from traveling to see the other. William died in 1942, and Grace followed him by two years, succumbing to a heart attack at age 76.


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Grace Emily Chisholm Young

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