According to descriptions of Mileva Marić, Einstein's first wife, she was the second woman to complete the mathematics and physics program at the Zürich Polytechnikum. However, nobody points out who the first one was.

The ETH website From the first female student to today's female researchers names the engineer Nadezda Smeckaja, the agronomist Marie Kowalik and the researcher Marie Baum. However, it is unclear if they completed the mathematics and physics program.

Do you have any idea where I can find this?


1 Answer 1


The first woman to complete the course of study in department VI A, mathematics and physics, was Mary Ann Elizabeth Stephansen of Bergen, Norway 4. The diploma in mathematics (specifically, Fachlehrer in mathematischer Richtung, which is the same kind of diploma Einstein received in 1900) was conferred on her on August 5, 1896 3, 8. She also appears as Mary Ann Elisabeth Stephansen or Marie Elisabeth Stephansen in the literature and is sometimes referred to by her nickname Betzy. Stephansen was the second Norwegian woman to hold a doctorate 7, and the first to hold a doctorate in mathematics 2. Her work was mostly focused on teaching, with only a few publications 2 following her doctoral thesis.

Stephansen was born on March 10, 1872 in Bergen as the daughter of a merchant and factory owner. She graduated from high school in Bergen in 1891, and went to Zurich to study at the Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum (now: ETH Zurich) at the department for teachers in mathematics and natural sciences 7. She received some financial support in the form of a grant from the Queen Josefine endowment 5.

After her return to Norway she taught at local schools in Bergen. At the same time the worked on a thesis on partial differential equations, which was published in 1902 1. She sent it to Zurich for consideration of a Ph.D. The mathematician Heinrich Burkhardt was the examiner of her thesis 10. In the fall of that year the University of Zurich conferred on her the Ph.D. degree, as the Polytechnikum could not confer doctoral degrees. Stephansen spent the winter semester 1902-1903 at the University of Göttingen, supported by a state scholarship of 700 kroner, attending lectures by Hilbert, Klein, and Zermelo 2, 10.

In 1906 she became an assistant of mathematics and physics at the Norwegian Agricultural College (now: Norwegian University of Life Sciences) in Ås, near Oslo. In 1921 she was appointed to a newly created position of docent in mathematics at that school, a post she held until retiring in 1937 6.

In retirement she lived with her sister in Espeland, in the vicinity of Bergen. During the German occupation of Norway in WW2 she assisted Norwegian prisoners at the Espeland detention camp as she was fluent in German. For this work she received the King's Medal of Merit in 1948 6, 9. Stephansen died on February 23, 1961.

1 Mary Ann Elisabeth Stephansen, "Über partielle Differentialgleichungen vierter Ordnung, die ein intermediäres Integral besitzen." Archiv for Mathematik og Naturvidenskab, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1902, 80 pp. (Google scan)

2 Kari Hag, "Elizabeth Stephansen", Norsk Biografisk Leksikon (online, last updated June 29, 2022). Kari Hag is professor of mathematics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.

3 Dord Krstić, Mileva & Albert Einstein: Their Love and Scientific Collaboration, Didakta 2004, p. 52. The author cites personal communication with Dr. Beat Glaus from the history of science department of the ETH library in November of 1985. Krstić was a physics professor at Ljubljana University who researched the biography of Mileva Marić for fifty years starting in the early 1960s.

4 Senta Trömel-Plötz, "Mileva Einstein-Marić." FemBio (online). Trömel-Plötz is a German linguist.

5 J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, "Mary Ann Elizabeth Stephansen", MacTutor (online)

6 "Elizabeth Stephansen (1872–1961)." lokalhistoriewiki.no (online)

7 "De første norske kvinnene med doktorgrad." lokalhistoriewiki.no (online). The first Norwegian woman to obtain a doctorate was Agnes Mathilde Wergeland (1857-1914), who defended her dissertation (on a topic from the legal history of the Middle Ages) in Zurich in 1890.

8 "Eidg. Polytechnikum. Diplom - Erteilung." In Schweizerische Bauzeitung, Vol. 28, No. 8, August 22, 1896, p. 67: "Diplom als Fachlehrer in mathematischer Richtung: Herr Otto Scherrer von Stocken-Egnach (Thurgau) und Frl. Marie Elisabeth Stephansen von Bergen (Norwegen)."

9 The Royal House of Norway. Tildelinger av ordener og medaljer. (online) "01.07.1948 Stephansen, Betzy Frøken Betzy Stephansen er tildelt Kongens Fortjenstmedalje"

10 Kari Hag and Peter Lindqvist, "Elizabeth Stephansen: a pioneer". Det Kongelige Norske Videnskabers Selskabs Skrifter, 1997.

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    $\begingroup$ A stunningly well documented answer that exceeds even your normally exacting standards! $\endgroup$
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Sep 2, 2023 at 15:04

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