Sylvia de Neymet

Quick Info

19 February 1938
Mexico City, Mexico
13 January 2003
Mexico City, Mexico

Sylvia de Neymet was the first Mexican woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics in 1966. She taught university courses for almost 40 years, published several excellent papers and one book.


Sylvia de Neymet was known as Sylvia de Neymet Urbina until she married in 1962 being known as Silvia de Neymet de Christ from that time onwards. She was the daughter of Agustín de Neymet Leger (1902-1980) and Inés Urbina del Raso. Agustín de Neymet was born on 16 August 1902 in Mexico City, the son of Agustin de Neymet (1867-1954) and Ernestina Leger (1865-1947) who was a well-known teacher at the Colegio de las Vizcaínas in Mexico City. Agustín de Neymet, Sylvia's father, became a civil engineer and, for his first job, he had to travel by train from Mexico City every day. On the same train was Inés Urbina who had lost her father at a young age in the Mexican Revolution of 1910. Inés had been encouraged by her mother to attend normal school and then took a teaching job in Santiaguito travelling by train every day from the centre of Mexico City. She also studied at the La Esmeralda art school in Mexico City and became a sculptor. Agustín and Inés married and lived in San José Insurgentes, a district of Mexico City, in a house full of art, plants and interesting conversations. Sylvia and her siblings, who included Rosa Maria De Neymet Urbina (born 31 May 1936), were brought up in that house at 58 Rodrico Cifuentes.

Agustín de Neymet, Sylvia's father, had an impressive career. He was a member of the National Irrigation Commission and Head of Construction of the Valley of Mexico Works of the Hydraulic Resources Secretariat. He twice served as President of the Association of Engineers and Architects of Mexico and for almost 40 years he served as Director of the Hydraulic Resources Journal. He founded several companies including the concrete additives company Duro Rock in 1941.

Sylvia's parents strongly supported her education and she attended both elementary school and the Women's University of Mexico in Mexico City. Her experiences at elementary school were not too positive because she was not taught to think about problems, only to solve them using memorised procedures which were not justified. Her mother, however, helped her to understand and to think. At the Women's University her experiences were much better. The Women's University, also a high school, had been founded by Adela Formoso de Obregón Santacilia, wife of the architect Carlos Obregón Santacilia, in 1943. As well as founding the Women's University, Adela Formoso was its first director. It [9]:-
... became a centre of very profound intellectual development. The cultural evenings on Fridays included characters such as Juan José Arreola, Nabor Carrillo, etc. Art, science and culture on the lips of their creators, was disseminated among these young people giving them the most current ideas of the time. At this high school, Sylvia had one of her dearest friends, Alejandra Jaidar ...
At the Women's University, Sylvia was taught trigonometry by Manuela Garín who showed her that mathematics was fun and reasoning was a pleasure. Later in her studies she was taught mathematics by the excellent teacher Teresa Sánchez de Padilla and by this time Sylvia knew that she wanted to make a career in the topic.

At the age of seventeen, in 1955, Neymet entered the Faculty of Sciences of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). The Faculty of Sciences had been created at the UNAM at the end of 1938 and began to function in 1939 with the structure: Department of Mathematics, Department of Physics and Department of Biology. The UNAM had been founded on a site in the centre of Mexico City and from the start of the 1930s it became clear that if the university was to continue to expand it required a much larger campus which would have to be on the outskirts of the city. In 1945 the University acquired land in the Coyoacán district in the southern part of Mexico City. There were various delays but the new university site began operating two years before Neymet began her studies.

Her first-year lecturers were Alberto Barajas Celis, Guillermo Torres, Alfonso Nápoles Gándara, Carlos Graef Fernández and Roberto Vázquez. She studied Selected Topics in Physics with Juan de Oyarzábal. She also had physical practical sessions organised by Juan Manuel Lozano in the physics laboratory. In 1958, when she was in her fourth year and still only nineteen years old, Nápoles Gándara, who was the director of the Faculty of Sciences, asked her if she would like to teach evening classes at Escuela Nacional Preparatoria 3, a High School attached to the NUAM. Neymet thought this was a great opportunity and an honour, and accepted immediately. Students attending evening classes were mostly mature students older that the young Neymet. The class she was assigned to teach had also gained quite a reputation as being challenging [9]:-
When she arrived, the first thing she knew was that her future students had just had her predecessor fired by going on strike. And the same afternoon that she talked to the director about teaching a class like that, without further ado, they sent her to give her first lesson. The first thing she received from the students was a complaint for having exchanged, on the way to class, the room on the ground floor they had been assigned for another on the first floor which had belonged to a teacher with walking problems. It must be said that almost all of her students were older than Sylvia. So every afternoon she would put on the most serious outfit she could find and come to teach her class. At her home her family laughed at her 'serious teacher disguise'.

That year, 1958, there were many major strikes in Mexico. In particular, there was a student strike against the rise in the price of transportation. The students from Escuela Nacional Preparatoria 3 organised groups, made propaganda and called for a demonstration in the Zócalo (the main square of Mexico City). Of course, they invited their beloved teacher: "we're going for you and we'll take care of you all the way, teacher."

Nearing the end of the course, the students asked Sylvia to teach them Calculus the following year. But she was about to go to Paris and she couldn't do it. The day of the last examination all the students arrived in suits, very handsome. In the end they told Sylvia that they invited her to have a taquito. They, the most forward, the ones with a reputation for being rude and vandals, had reserved a table for their teacher and had hired a mariachi band to say goodbye to her.
During the year she was teaching evening classes at the Escuela Nacional Preparatoria 3, she was writing an undergraduate thesis on differential equations advised by Solomon Lefschetz. He had been coming to Mexico since 1944 and, after he retired from Princeton in 1954, he spent long periods at the Institute of Mathematics in Mexico City. With help from Lefschetz, Neymet had been awarded a two-year scholarship by the French government to study in Paris and left after completing her undergraduate studies but before she graduated. On 13 November 1958 she flew from Mexico City to New York on her way to Paris. For her first year in Paris she lived in the Alliance Française close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. This was founded in 1883 and welcomed students from around the world to offer French courses and make French culture better known. In her second year she lived at the Casa de México, part of the Cité Internationale Universitaire de Paris. It was a student residence for postgraduate students enrolled in a higher education institution in Paris. In Paris, Neymet studied at the Institut Henri Poincaré, the centre for teaching and scientific research on mathematical and theoretical physics in the Faculty of Sciences of the University of Paris. There she took courses by Charles Ehresmann on Differential Topology, Algebraic Topology and Category Theory. She also participated in the Séminaire Henri Cartan, mostly led by Henri Cartan and his student Adrien Douady.

After her two years of study in Paris, she returned to Mexico, flying via New York where she arrived on 10 October 1960 and stayed at the Taft Hotel. While in the United States, she visited Princeton where she met Ralph Hartzler Fox, John Willard Milnor and Christos Dimitriou Papakyriakopoulos (1914-1976). Ralph Fox and John Milnor had strong connections with Mexico. Fox had given a series of lectures at the Mathematics Institute in Mexico City in 1951 and, along with Milnor, had attended the International Symposium on Algebraic Topology organised by José Adem, Alberto Barajas, Solomon Lefschetz, Emilio Lluis, Alfonso Nápoles Gandara, Félix Recillas, Guillermo Torres and Roberto Vázquez at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in August 1956. It should be noted that Neymet visiting Princeton was a bold move given that it was exclusively male at that time and this shows something of her personality.

Neymet, having completed her undergraduate studies before going to Paris, graduated in 1961 and taught in the Faculty of Sciences. While she had been in Paris she had become friends with Michel C C Christ, an anesthesiologist. He had been born on 8 April 1932 in Metz, France. He followed her to Mexico, passing through New York on 23 December 1961. They married in April 1962 [9]:-
Together they shared adventures of all kinds: fishing, diving, radio amateurs and the most demanding of all adventures, having children.
They had three children; Simone Sylvie Christ de Neymet (born 1963), Martine Lorraine Christ de Neymet (born about 1964) and Pierre Michel Christ de Neymet (born 1966).

On 19 April 1961, Cinvestav, the Centre for Research and Advanced Studies of the National Polytechnic Institute, was founded as a postgraduate department of the National Polytechnic Institute. The professors in the Department of Mathematics when it was founded were José Ádem (Head of Department), Samuel Gitler (Adjunct Professor), Carlos Ímaz (Adjunct Professor) and François Bruhat (Visiting Professor) while Neymet was appointed as an Instructor, She undertook postgraduate studies at Cinvestav advised by José Adem and Samuel Gitler, and also taught advanced courses such as Homological Algebra and Mathematical Analysis in the School of Physics-Mathematics of the National Polytechnic Institute. On 22 January 1964 she graduated with a Master's Degree from the Department of Mathematics Cinvestav. Two years later she was awarded a doctorate for her thesis; Samuel Gitler had been her official advisor but she had also been helped by José Adem. With the award of this degree, Neymet became the first Mexican woman to be awarded a Ph.D. in mathematics.

After graduating with her doctorate, in 1966 Neymet was appointed as one of only three professors in the Department of Mathematics of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México; the other two were Víctor Neumann-Lara and Arturo Fregoso Urbina who had been awarded a Ph.D. from Indiana University for his thesis Local Categories in 1963. For some years Neymet concentrated on teaching and did little in the way of research. Having three young children to look after and teaching full-time meant she had no time for research. Later in her career, however, she became an active researcher, publishing papers and presenting talks at national and international conferences. Here is a list of her papers: Sylvia de Neymet de Christ, Some relations in Whitehead torsion (Spanish) (1967); Sylvia de Neymet de Christ and Francisco Javier González-Acuña, A generalisation of Fox's notion of spread (Spanish) (1981); Sylvia de Neymet de Christ and Francisco Javier González-Acuña, A generalisation of Fox's spread completion (1982) (Lecture given at the Symposium on Algebraic Topology in honour of José Adem in Oaxtepec, 1981); Sylvia de Neymet, Clifford algebras and geometries (Spanish) (1991) (Lecture given at the XXIIIrd National Congress of the Mexican Mathematical Society in Guanajuato, 1990); Sylvia de Neymet and Rolando Jiménez, G-overlays (1995) (Lecture given at Topology with applications in Szekszárd, 1993); Sylvia de Neymet Urbina, Covering actions (Spanish) (1995) (Lecture given at the XXVII National Congress of the Mexican Mathematical Society in Queretaro, 1994); Rolando Jiménez and Sylvia de Neymet, Union of equivariant extensors and equivariant covering spaces (2000); Sergey A Antonyan, Rolando Jiménez and Sylvia de Neymet, Fiberwise retraction and shape properties of the orbit space (2000); and Sergey A Antonyan and Sylvia de Neymet, Invariant pseudometrics on Palais proper G-spaces (2003).

Neymet was due to retire after reaching the age of 65 in February 2003 but, sadly, she died one month before that date while she was preparing for retirement [8]:-
... she has taught in more than fifty courses at the Faculty, has directed bachelor's and master's theses, has been an examiner (in professional, master's and doctoral examinations), has given lectures at national and international congresses, has participated in commissions of the Department of Mathematics of the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología, has been a member of the Board of Directors of the Mexican Mathematical Society, has taught courses at provincial universities, has published research articles and, recently, has devoted her efforts to writing of a book on group actions that will soon be published by the Mexican Mathematical Society.
The book referred to in this quote is Introducción a los grupos topológicos de transformaciones and it was published in 2005, two years after Neymet died. The Publisher writes [6]:-
Symmetries in topological spaces are an additional structure that enriches their study and allows us to refine the statements made about such spaces. These symmetries are formulated in the language of group actions. In general, groups that act on a topological space are also considered to have a topological structure that transforms them into topological groups. Spaces with symmetries, or topological transformation groups, arise in a natural way in theoretical physics and in many branches of mathematics. This book presents the topology of G-spaces in a systematic and orderly way and is a noteworthy contribution to the bibliography of advanced mathematics in Spanish.
We end with six comments about Sylvia de Neymet.

Comment by Manuela Garín [5]:-
... the good thing is that I got Sylvia de Neymet as a student. Very pretty and a very good student, because the rest were "waiting to get married" girls who were at the university because their mothers sent them and Sylvia was definitely not. She was also a very pleasant person to deal with, she talked a lot with me when I left classes, and her participation in them made clear the depth of her thought, her questions were precise and interesting.
Comment by Isabel Puga [2]:-
I once travelled with her to Hungary, in 1993, to a congress and as a roommate she was ideal, she was very respectful, very prudent. You felt comfortable with her, she was easy to deal with, very fine and rarely got angry. It was to her great merit that being a woman and being in the mathematical environment that was there in its beginning, to do her doctorate and have an academic career. She is the first doctor in Mathematics and is the first woman to do an academic career in Mathematics, and stay to work at a university, to do research in Mathematics.
Comment by Angel Tamariz Mascarúa [2]:-
We were partners in many congresses, academic commissions and seminars. She was one of the first full-time professors in this Mathematics department. We had a great relationship, because we worked on the same thing and we established a relationship of friendship forever. I never heard any gossip or negative comments about anyone from her, she was a person who was highly esteemed herself and therefore esteemed others as well.
Comment by María de la Paz Álvarez Scherer [2]:-
The crucial moment of our friendship was the congress in Guanajuato in 1990. Pilar Martínez, Mariana Saiz and I travelled in Sylvia's car; there any ice was broken and we discovered that behind the serious and formal, Sylvia hid a funny woman, joyful and talkative. Sylvia and I shared a room and whole nights of the most delicious conversation. It was two in the morning and we said to each other 'well, now - tomorrow we will continue talking', we turned off the light, and it was enough for one of us to say 'but ... ' so that the light would come on and the talk would go on hour after hour.
Comment by María de la Paz Álvarez Scherer [9]:-
We worked together and it was wonderful to be her friend. We paid her a tribute shortly before she retired and, precisely while she was carrying out the retirement procedures, she passed away.
Comment by María de la Paz Álvarez Scherer [9]:-
In one way or another, although Sylvia was not my teacher during my undergraduate degree, she was always present: Sylvia, when she greets you, is not being "kind" in the formal sense of the word: she is greeting you. When she asks you how you are, how things are going, your subjects, how your new assistantship is going, how your pregnancy is going, how your babies are, she is telling you that she shares it, that even though you have never talked to her, she is with you.

It was later, in my master's degree, that we really met and I have enjoyed knowing Sylvia ever since. She is the most enthusiastic and passionate person about geometry, topology, and beautiful examples. The hyperbolic geometry seminar in which we participated excited her enormously. There I discovered another part of her personality; her secret identity: Sylvia is "the fastest chalk in the West" ... no proof stands up to her ... an hour is more than enough to unravel the most terrible secrets of any theorem ... it is very difficult to discern what goes faster: chalk, her words, the ideas or the relentless draft ... it is impressive and exhausting. Leaving the seminar it was only possible to share a peaceful coffee.

References (show)

  1. B Estela Botello, Sylvia de Neymet Urbina: Una Mujer Practica, Instituto de Matemáticas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (15 February 2003).
  2. B Estela Botello, Sylvia de Neymet Urbina: Una Mujer Practica, vLex (15 February 2003).
  3. Fallece Silvia de Neymet Urbina, Museo de la Mujer.
  4. S Gitler Hammer, Semblanza de la doctora Sylvia de Neymet, Avances y Perspectiva 22 (2003), 91.
  5. C Gómez Wulschner, Ecos del pasado… luces del presente: Manuela Garín, Miscelánea Matemática, SMM 47 (August 2008), 67-85.
  6. S de Neymet U, Introducción a los grupos topológicos de transformaciones (Sociedad Matemática Mexicana, México, 2005).
  7. Neymet family,
  8. M de la Paz Álvarez Scherer, Tejiendo Destellos: Imágenes de la vida de Sylvia de Neymet, Carta Informativa de la Sociedad Matemática Mexicana, Sexagésimo Aniversario (April 2003), 3-5.
  9. M de la Paz Álvarez Scherer, Tejiendo Destellos: Imágenes de la vida de Sylvia de Neymet, Mujeres con Ciencia (12 March 2019).
  10. L Romero, Homenaje a Sylvia de Neymet, en Ciencias, Instituto de Matemáticas de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (19 September 2002).
  11. Sylvia de Neymet (1939-2003), Miscelánea Matemática, SMM 51 (2010), 41-57.

Additional Resources (show)

Other websites about Sylvia de Neymet:

  1. MathSciNet Author profile
  2. zbMATH entry

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update June 2023