Sophie Willock Bryant


Born: 15 February 1850 in Sandymount, near Dublin, Ireland
Died: 14 August 1922 in Chamonix, France

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Sophie Willock was the daughter of Sophie Morris and the Revd Dr William Alexander Willock, a graduate and Fellow of Trinity College, Dublin, who taught mathematics there. Sophie, the third of her parents six children, was brought up near Dublin for the first few years of her life, then in Ballymony, Co Cork, where her father accepted a living in the Church of Ireland, and still later in Cleenish near Enniskillen. Her education during these years was partly from her father and partly from private governesses. These governesses were either French or German, and Sophie soon became fluent in both languages [1]:-

George Bernard Shaw, a friend of her youth, remembered Sophie as having a sunny and engaging personality ...

In 1863, when Sophie was thirteen years old, her father was appointed to the Chair of Geometry in the University of London, and the family moved to London. For three years her education continued with lessons from her father and from private governesses, then in 1866 she entered Bedford College having been awarded the Arnott scholarship for science. In the following year she sat the Cambridge Local Examination for Girls. Fletcher writes [1]:-

The Cambridge local examinations had only just been opened to girls, and her performance in mathematics placed her alone in the first class.

In 1869 she married Dr William Hicks Bryant from Plymouth. Hicks Bryant was a surgeon who, at 29, was ten years older than his wife. Sadly the marriage lasted less than one year for Hicks Bryant died of cirrhosis in 1870. Sophie Bryant then took a teaching post at a school for ladies in Highgate but she also continued her own studies.

Frances Mary Buss had founded the North London Collegiate School in Camden in 1850. Sophie Bryant first met her in 1867 when she sat the Cambridge Local Examination. Buss encouraged Bryant to continue her education after the death of her husband, and, in 1875, appointed her to teach mathematics at the North London Collegiate School. Of course Bryant had no degree, for women could not take degrees at universities at this time. However things changed in 1878 when the University of London opened its doors to women. Still encouraged by Buss, Bryant decided to read for a B.Sc. degree but there were severe difficulties to overcome. Her education had been highly non-standard and she had never studied Latin, a subject which was now required for admission. Again she resorted to private study to make good this and other deficiencies in her education and by 1881 she had completed her B.Sc. degree with first class honours in mental and moral science, and second class honours in mathematics. She continued to study, undertaking research, and was awarded a D.Sc. in 1884 on mental and moral philosophy, becoming the first woman in England to be awarded this degree.

While studying for her D.Sc., Bryant was elected to the London Mathematical Society in 1882. She became the third women member of the Society (Charlotte Angas Scott and Christine Ladd-Franklin were the first and second respectively in the previous year). Bryant, however, does have the distinction of being the first woman to have a paper published in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society. This was in 1884 when she published The ideal geometrical form of natural cell structure. The paper investigates the hexagonal form of honeycombs. This, of course, was a topic of interest since antiquity, Pappus having written on the subject in his Mathematical Collection [2}:-

Bryant explains how the complex and beautiful honeycomb shape could be produced by the natural activity of bees. All that was needed was for each bee to excavate his own cell at approximately the same rate as the others and use the excavated material to build up the walls of its cell. Bryant's conclusion that elongated rhombic semi-dodecahedra are the natural form of honeycomb cells had been observed by Kepler.

In 1895 Frances Buss died and Bryant succeeded her as head of the North London Collegiate School. She held this post until she retired in 1918.

Bryant published on many topics, Irish history, religion, education, women's rights, and philosophy. For example she published articles such as: An account of the North London Collegiate School for Girls (1870); Experiments in testing the characters of school children (1885); Welsh University, local examinations in Wales (1886); Educational ends or the ideal of personal development (1887); and Moral education (1888). Among her books we mention How to read the Bible in the twentieth century (1918), Moral and religious education (1920), and The teaching of morality in the family and the school (1897, 1898, 1900). A staunch supporter of Irish Home Rule, Sophie work books on Irish history - Celtic Ireland (1889), The Genius of the Gael: A study in Celtic psychology and its manifestations (1913) and Liberty, order and law under native Irish rule: a study in the Book of the Ancient Laws of Ireland (1923).

In [2] Bryant's many achievements are listed, for example:-

... she was one of the first three women to be appointed to a Royal Commission, the Bryce Commission on Secondary Education in 1894 - 95, and she was one of the first three women to be appointed to the Senate of London University. While on the Senate she advocated setting up a Day Training College for teachers which eventually became the Institute of Education. Later in 1904, when Trinity College Dublin opened its degrees to women, Bryant was one of the first to be awarded an honorary doctorate. She was also instrumental in setting up the Cambridge Training College for Women which eventually became Hughes Hall, the first postgraduate college in Cambridge.

Bryant's biography written by Sheila Fletcher for the Dictionary of National Biography (originally in 1993 and revised for the new edition of 2004) emphasizes her love of freedom [1]:-

Her feeling for freedom as 'the condition of all development' infused her teaching, her patriotism, and her support for women's suffrage. In Hampstead she was president of the local committee of the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies. She took great delight in physical freedom, was one of the first women to cycle, loved to row, and climbed the Matterhorn twice.

Her death occurred while she was on a climbing holiday in Chamonix, France. Climbing was one of Bryant's loves and she had climbed many of the mountains in the Alps, for example the Matterhorn and Mount Blanc. However her death occurred in a valley with fields and paths. Her body was discovered on 28 August 1922, two weeks after she had failed to return to her lodgings. The Freeman's Journal of 30 August 1922 reported (see, for example [4]):-

It is supposed that she was about to bathe her feet in a pool nearby when she had a seizure. Unable to walk any further, she lay down and at nightfall pulled her skirt over her head. In this positions she was discovered by guides.

However, three weeks later, the report in The Freeman's Journal of 22 September 1922 makes her death appear more mysterious (see, for example [4]):-

A report that her handbag containing money and some jewellery was missing deepens the mystery of the death of Dr Sophie Bryant ... . When discovered she had taken off her shoes and had been bathing her feet in a wayside stream to relieve a badly sprained ankle. The police are now endeavouring to find out whether she was molested and the valuables stolen or whether they were taken after her death by some person who found the body and failed to report the discovery.

We end this biography by giving a quotation from The Genius of the Gael : A study in Celtic psychology and its manifestations (1913). This gives a flavour of Bryant's writing and her love of Ireland:-

Before the first Norman set his foot upon Irish soil, the Irish nation had achieved a spiritual reality - a grip on the eternal truth of real civilisation - that could not be annulled. It had fused all elements of the prehistoric and older historic stock, it had assimilated the Danish settlers, it did in time absorb the Normans and the train that followed them. Then came the long dark centuries during which, to all outward seeming, the Irish nation suffered shipwreck and was destroyed. But the ideals of Irish civilisation were never destroyed, and worked like leaven in the superincumbent alien mass. The seed of life - the spiritual Ireland - grew secretly through all those darkened times. Now it has grown to fuller manifestation than ever before, and stands forth tall and strong in the field of the world, with the alien elements once more grafted into it. This is the triumph of Irish nationality; it is the triumph of the Celtic spirit in history: conquering nothing, it wins by consent. The spiritual Ireland was too real to die - too true to human type. Out of long tradition it arises and renews its strength, using now in the wider circles of the world its gift of drawing out the fine humanity of others, which in practice is the essence of the genius of the Gael.

Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson


List of References (4 books/articles)

Mathematicians born in the same country


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