Marie-Sophie Germain

Essay by cpsc April 2004

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Marie-Sophie Germain, born April 1, 1776 to a French merchant, Ambroise-Francois Germain, "was probably the most profoundly intellectual woman that France has ever produced" (H.J. Mozans qtd. by Singh). Her interest in mathematics was inspired by her readings of the tragic death of Archimedes, who was murdered at the hands of a Roman soldier because he was too engrossed in a geometric problem to take notice of his situation. Germain immediately dove into the great mathematical works, teaching herself the basics of number theory and calculus. Unfortunately, being a woman of that era meant that it was not acceptable for her to indulge her fascination with mathematics. Her parents went to great lengths to keep her from her studies, withholding candles, warmth and even clothes in order to discourage her. However, once it became apparent that she would not be deterred, they conceded to her passion. Germain's father even funded her research throughout her entire career, as she was never married.

Germain first broke into the field of mathematics in 1794 by adopting the identity of a former student, Monsieur Le Blanc, at the strictly male, scientific academy Ecole Polytechnique in Paris. However, her true identity was revealed when the supervisor of her correspondence course, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, requested a meeting with his brilliant student. Lagrange's respect for Germain was not diminished by the discovery of her gender, and he became a mentor to her. She eventually began studying new areas of mathematics focusing mainly on number theory, which led her to Fermat's Last Theorem. She worked with the theorem for several years until she felt that she had made a significant breakthrough, and sent it straight to the "greatest number theorist in the world" (Singh), Carl Friedrich Gauss; unfortunately, her fears of her work being trivialized due...