Julia Bowman Robinson (b. 1919)
Missing two years of school while battling scarlet and rheumatic fevers could have been disastrous for some students, but for nine-year-old Julia Bowman, it was the catalyst for a lifelong love affair with numbers. Fascinated when her tutor—who helped her cover coursework for grades five through eight—explained that the square root of two was an elusive number to pinpoint, she dove into her math studies. By high school, she was the only girl taking advanced mathematics and physics courses.
She went on to study numbers at San Diego State College (now University) at the age of 16, expecting to teach after graduation like most of her classmates. She had no clue that “mathematician” was an actual career until she discovered the book Men of Mathematics and promptly transferred to University of California at Berkeley to delve deeper into her studies. She earned her bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees there. “I was very happy, really blissfully happy, at Berkeley. In San Diego there had been no one at all like me,” she has said. “Suddenly, at Berkeley…there were lots of people, students as well as faculty members, just as excited as I was about mathematics.” Among them was associate professor Raphael M. Robinson, whom she eventually married.
In 1948, the year she finished her studies, she began her 20-plus-year career-defining quest to solve mathematician David Hilbert’s Tenth Problem: “To find an effective method for determining if a given Diophantine equation [polynomial equations of several variables, with integer coefficients, whose solutions are to be integers] is solvable in integers.” The result? She created an elegant proof that informs work in the field of decision problems to this day. Along the way, she also tackled game theory as an employee of RAND Corporation, hydrodynamics problems for the U.S. Office of Naval Research, and politics, when she worked with the Democratic Party and campaigned for presidential hopeful Adlai Stevenson. She returned to her beloved Berkley with a full professorship in 1975.
She certainly wasn’t afraid of pioneering: Robinson was the first woman mathematician to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975, and in ’83, she became the first woman to serve as president of the American Mathematical Society. That same year, she was awarded the MacArthur Fellowship (“Genius Grant”), and two years later, she was offered membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.