This is to celebrate Wexford’s Maggie Gough, the first Irish woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics.
In the week that marks International Women’s Day, South East Technological University's Wexford campus will launch a new funded PhD in the area of STEM (Science, technology, engineering, mathematics) to celebrate Wexford’s Maggie Gough, the first Irish woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics in 1931.
Generously part funded by Maggie’s family, the PhD access will allow her story and achievements provide inspiration and encouragement to current students in our University. In so doing we are pleased to provide this support and motivation for excellence in memory of an exceptional woman.
The Wexford native did original research in a highly technical subject at a time when very few women (or even men) got that opportunity.
In August 1909, a 17 year old Wexford girl boarded the vessel Irak in Liverpool, bound for the United States and ultimately Texas. Maggie Gough was one of over two dozen young women from the south east of Ireland onboard, most of them destined to spend their lives in service to an order of nuns based in San Antonio.
Margaret Mary Gough was born in 1892, in Rickardstown in the parish of Kilmore in south east Wexford. The St John of God religious order had a primary school there, which she attended. She was not the only pupil to travel to Texas: many of her classmates sailed with her to Galveston, also headed for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.
Jim Moore, grandson of Maggie's sister Lizzie, was born in the same family homestead in Wexford. "She left here with a group of other girls from the area, two of whom we knew", he recalls. "I remember as a youngster, they coming to visit our home in Kilmore, and everyone being put on good behaviour."
However, Gough never made it back to her native land again, not even for her sister Lizzie's wedding in 1928. "The problem was that if you came home you had to pay for your own transport", Moore relates. "My grandmother died in 1947, and Sister Mary kept in touch with my grandfather and the family, she was a great letter writer. In the 1960s and 1970s, two of her compatriots used to come home and visit our house. Our experience of Sister de Lellis was, every Christmas, letters and presents. Prayer books came for confirmations and communions."
After taking her vows, Gough took the name Sister Mary de Lellis, and embarked on a teaching career far from the public eye. In time, she was permitted to advance her education and did so in three stages starting in 1920, all at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC. Her family were largely unaware of the magnitude of her achievements, but they did know she was a maths teacher.
Gough did original research at a high level in a highly technical subject at a time when very few women (or even men) got that opportunity. Her MA in 1923 was awarded for a thesis on "The Representability of a Number by an Indefinite Binary Quadratic Form". After a few more years of teaching back in Texas, she earned her PhD with a dissertation entitled "On the Condition for the Existence of Triangles In-and-Circumscribed to Certain Types of Rational Quartic Curve and Having a Common Side". Her research supervisor Aubrey Landry also oversaw the doctoral dissertation of Euphemia Haynes, who became the first African American women to earn a doctorate in mathematics in 1941.
She taught in San Antonio for over 20 years, and then briefly at Incarnate Word Academy in St Louis, Missouri. In 1944, she left the classroom for good due to health issues, and returned to Texas to work as an accountant in a local hospital in Forth Worth, until she retired in 1964.
Moore tried to contact her directly in her later years. "I worked internationally, as an engineer, and in 1981 I was working for an American company. I was down in Texas—now this is pre mobile phones—and I spoke to one of the sisters in San Antonio. Basically, she was saying that Sister Mary probably wouldn't recognise me, she was disabled. I discovered that she was blind, and may have suffered from what we call Alzheimer's these days. She was a considerable age, and she died in 1983."
"A lot of people from families in our area would have joined religious orders and entered the priesthood", Jim Moore notes about his grand-aunt. "The St John of Gods was a prominent local order, and there was St Peter's College seminary in Wexford town. My aunt made an interesting comment recently that Sister Mary would have gone nowhere if she had stayed here in Ireland, for the simple reason that she came from a very poor background. Her father was a labourer with five acres of land! She would have been used as a skivvy. Going to an order abroad gave her new opportunities."
Gough's achievements and career were fostered and nurtured by emigration to the United States, a familiar story in many Irish households then. Women of her calibre and level of achievement were very rare in those days.
Maggie Gough’s legacy and accomplishments will be acknowledged and celebrated this week as SETU, along with Maggie’s family, launch the new funded PhD in STEM at the university’s Wexford campus. No doubt Maggie Gough would be proud to see the opportunity she found and embraced in America now back on home soil.
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