Dame Mary Cartwright

One of the early founders of Chaos Theory

Who is Dame Mary Cartwright?

Dame Mary Cartwright was born on December 17, 1900, in Aynho, Northamptonshire, England and died on April 3, 1998, in Cambridge, England. She was one of the pioneers in the field of mathematics now known as Chaos Theory. She lived to the age of 97, staying active in the field of mathematics into her late eighties, and spent her final years painting and editing the manuscripts of Littleton and Hardy.

Her Early Life and Education

Mary was the third of four children. Her two older brothers both died in World War I and she was sent to live with her uncle so that she could attend the prestigious Learnington High School, now known as the Kingsley School. There, a woman mathematics teacher spotted her talent and helped foster her interest in the subject.

Ms. Cartwritght was admitted to St. Hugh’s College at Oxford University to study mathematics but because of all the soldiers returning from World War I, it was very difficult for her to get into the classes she needed.  She eventually earned a “Second Degree” in Mathematics representing a score of 60%-69% (a “First” is the highest award representing a score above 70%) in 1921. She almost switched her focus of study to history but after meeting a Geometry professor by the name of Godfrey H. Hardy, she was hooked. She graduated with a First class degree in Mathematics in 1923. 

She completed her doctorate at Oxford and then received a Yarrow Research Fellowship at Girton College, the first Women’s College at Cambridge.  The money from that Fellowship allowed her to publish “From non–linear oscillations to topological dynamics,” in The Journal of the London Mathematical Society in 1931.

Her Contributions to Science

Work that Mary did during World War II on a radar issue known as “sinusoidal forcing.” Her work with Littlewood related to this interference caused by increasing power consumption was eventually the basis for what is known today as Chaos Theory. Although she was a slight woman, she kept an astonishing schedule. She not only worked with the Red Cross during WWII, but she also published another paper with Littleton in The Journal of the London Mathematical Society titled “On non–linear differential equations of the second order.” This is considered one of her most important works.

Her Legacy

After WWII, Ms. Cartwright became the Head of Girton College at Cambridge. Over the next few years, she achieved an impressive array of positions and awards including Member of the Board of the Council of the Cambridge University Senate, President of the British Mathematical Association, President of the London Mathematical Society, receipt of the Sylvester Medal of the Royal Society of Mathematics, the London Mathematical Society’s De Morgan Medal, and the ultimate recognition in 1969, when Queen Elizabeth conferred on her the Order of Dame Commander of the British Empire, the female equivalent of a knighthood. 

Mary continued to write and study well beyond her 80s and she passed away at her beloved Cambridge at the age of 97.

Learn more about Dame Mary Cartwright from the American Mathematical Society

keywords: Mary Cartwright, Chaos Theory, Cartwright’s theorem, female mathematicians, Marie Cartwright biography, Sylvester Medal, women of STEM.