Scott, Charlotte Angas

(1858-1931), mathematician

by J. J. Gray

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved

Scott, Charlotte Angas (1858-1931), mathematician, was born in Lincoln on 8 June 1858, daughter of Caleb Scott (d. 1919) and his wife, Eliza Ann, née Exley. She came from a Congregational background, and moved with her family when she was seven to Manchester, where her father had become head of the Lancashire College. In 1876 she went to Girton College, Cambridge, on a scholarship funded by the Goldsmiths' Company. On 31 January 1880, to public acclaim, it emerged that she had done well enough in the final tripos to be the eighth wrangler (though women were not then ranked, nor were they eligible for a degree). The public excitement that attended a woman's superb achievement at mathematics was intense. The Times took it up, and in 1881 the senior members of Cambridge University voted 398 to 32 in favour of ranking women with the men in the tripos (although it was not to grant women degrees until 1948).

Scott continued her studies at Cambridge, chiefly inspired by the lectures of Arthur Cayley, the Sadlerian professor, with whom she deepened her taste for geometry. In 1885 she took a London DSc, since Cambridge awarded no higher degrees to women, and for a time taught at Cambridge, though prospects were negligible. Then the new women's college of Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, which opened officially on 23 September 1885, offered her a position as associate professor. Scott was the only woman among the five associate professors, with a starting salary of $2000 a year. Her teaching was highly regarded, and earned her the college's first endowed professorship in 1909. Her lectures on projective geometry were published as a book, which remained in print throughout the century. She was active in the life of the college until isolated by increasing deafness, and she seems to have been regarded as one of those rare mathematicians whose capacity for logical thought extends beyond their subject and to embrace daily life. She was deeply principled, once, in 1898, rebuking the college president (Carey Thomas) for diluting women's education. Her personality seems to have been at once severe and vulnerable: severe in her decision never to marry but to pursue a career; severe in her personal appearance and in her dislike of women's smoking or using make-up; but patient with others if (but only if) they tried. The student song about her went:

S is for Scott
Superior Scott
She is kind in the main
If you have any brain
But if you have not
Superior Scott!
However, she enlivened her retirement by betting on the horses, to which she applied her grasp of mathematical statistics.Scott's contributions to Bryn Mawr, and to the cause of women in mathematics, were remarkable. She was the dissertation adviser to seven women students, putting Bryn Mawr third behind Chicago and Cornell in the number of PhDs they granted to women. Thanks in part to Scott, 14 per cent of doctorates in mathematics awarded before 1940 went to women; in the 1950s this number declined to 5 per cent. She was influential from the start in the American Mathematical Society and was its vice-president in 1905-6, and for twenty-seven years from 1899 was a co-editor of the American Journal of Mathematics. The American Mathematical Society fêted Scott at its spring meeting in Bryn Mawr in 1922, when A. N. Whitehead was the main speaker. Unquestionably, she earned this influence principally through the quality of her research.

Scott had a sharp eye for rigour in her own subject, the theory of algebraic curves. This is a subject with a geometrical aspect and also deep roots in the theory of complex functions, and many nineteenth-century mathematicians worked on it. The theory of these curves was most difficult when the curves crossed themselves; to overcome such difficulties various techniques were available which replaced complicated self-intersections by a number of simpler ones, and Scott was a master of these. Her work did much to illuminate a problem which was to perplex everyone of her generation. The English mathematician F. S. Macaulay praised her as a propounder of new ideas and an interpreter of the work of others (notably, his own).

Another major result in the subject concerned the equations of curves that passed through all the intersection points of two curves whose equations were given. In 1899 Scott gave her account of this result. The theorem, due originally to two eminent German mathematicians, Brill and Noether, had recently been proved by David Hilbert in an algebraic way (it forms part of his famous Nullstellensatz) and was later to be proved by many people. For Scott the theorem called for a thorough-going geometrical proof, which she duly gave. In 1906 Scott's health worsened with an attack of rheumatoid arthritis, and her research almost stopped. She retired in 1925 and returned to Cambridge, where she died at her home, Carholme, 2 Storey Ways, on 10 November 1931. She was buried at St Giles's Church, Cambridge.


P. C. Kenschafl, 'Charlotte Angas Scott, 1858-1931', College Mathematics Journal, 18 (1987), 98-110
F. S. Macaulay, 'Dr. Charlotte Angas Scott', Journal of the London Mathematical Society, 7 (1932), 230-40
E. Finch, Carey Thomas of Bryn Mawr (1947)
CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1932)

Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, archives

photograph, in or after 1885, Girton Cam. [see illus.]

Wealth at death  
£828 18s. 10d.: probate, 26 March 1932, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

© Oxford University Press 2004 All rights reserved


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