Robinson, Julia B. (1919–1985)

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Robinson, Julia B. (1919–1985)

American mathematician. Name variations: Julia Bowman Robinson. Born Julia Bowman on December 8, 1919, in St. Louis, Missouri; died on July 30, 1985, in Oakland, California; daughter of Ralph Bowers Bowman and Helen Hall Bowman; studied with a private tutor at age ten, following a year of quarantine after bout with scarlet fever; attended San Diego State College; University of California at Berkeley, Ph.D., 1948; married Raphael Robinson (an assistant professor of mathematics), in December 1941; no children.

Demonstrated that there is no automatic method of deciding which equations have integer solutions (1961); first woman mathematician elected to the National Academy of Science (1976); became first woman president of the American Mathematical Society (1982).

Born in 1919 in St. Louis, Missouri, Julia B. Robinson contracted scarlet fever at the age of nine. Her year-long study with a private tutor following her quarantine and bouts with rheumatic fever awakened an intense interest in mathematics that stayed with her when she returned to the classroom in ninth grade. She graduated from high school at age 16 with honors in mathematics and science and received the Bausch-Lomb medal for excellence in science.

Robinson's mother Helen Hall Bowman had died two years after giving birth to her, and following her father Ralph Bowman's second marriage the family moved to San Diego, where Julia enrolled at nearby San Diego State College. There she majored in mathematics and prepared to become a teacher, which was the only certain career path for mathematicians at the time. The onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s had accelerated the loss of her father's savings, leading to his depression and suicide at the beginning of Robinson's sophomore year in college. With financial help from her aunt and sister, Robinson transferred to the University of California at Berkeley for her senior year. There she encountered a stimulating environment with mathematicians like herself. She also met and married an assistant professor at the school, Raphael Robinson. Due to a rule that prohibited members of the same family from working in the same department, Julia Robinson gave up her teaching assistantship in the mathematics department. However, the rule did not prevent her from working with Jerzy Neyman in the Berkeley Statistical Laboratory on classified military projects during World War II. Around this time, Robinson suffered two miscarriages, probably related to her childhood illnesses, and she experienced a serious depression.

Robinson continued her Ph.D. studies under the well-known Polish logician Alfred Tarski. Her dissertation, Definability and Decision Problems in Arithmetic, proved the algorithmic unsolvability of the theory of the rational number field. In 1948, Robinson set out to work on David Hilbert's Tenth Problem; she would pursue this mathematical conundrum for most of her career. With the help of mathematicians Martin Davis and Hilary Putnam, who had sent her their work on a theorem, Robinson discovered a solution to the Tenth Problem, which was presented in 1961. Robinson's foundational work paved the way for Yuri Matijasevic to prove nine years later that no general method for determining solvability exists. Robinson also worked at the RAND corporation, the famous think-tank, theorizing about the zero-sum game, and on a problem in hydrodynamics for the Office of Naval Research.

In 1976, Robinson became the first woman mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Appointed full professor at Berkeley that same year, she carried only a quarter of the usual teaching load due to failing health, which also caused her to step down as president of the Association of Presidents of Scientific Societies. She became the first woman officer of the American Mathematical Society in 1978, and four years later was named its first woman president. The MacArthur Foundation awarded Robinson a fellowship prize of $60,000 for five years. She found the attention "gratifying but embarrassing," and further noted, "Rather than being remembered as the first woman this or that, I would prefer to be remembered as a mathematician should, simply for the theorems I have proved and the problems I have solved." In 1985, the year after Robinson discovered she had leukemia, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She died on July 30, 1985.

sources and suggested reading:

Dunham, William. The Mathematical Universe. NY: John Wiley & Sons, 1994.

Feferman, Solomon, ed. The Collected Works of Julia Robinson. Providence, RI: American Mathematical Society, 1996.

McMurray, Emily J., ed. Notable Twentieth-Century Scientists. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1995.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witleib. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Zilboorg, Caroline, ed. Women's Firsts. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1997.

Jane E. Spear , freelance writer and editor, Canton, Ohio