Agnes Scott College

Julia Bowman Robinson

Julia Robinson, July 13, 1985

December 8, 1919 - July 30, 1985

Written by Julie Bricker, Class of 2000 (Agnes Scott College)

Julia Bowman was born on December 8, 1919, in St. Louis, Missouri, to Ralph Bowers Bowman and Helen Hall Bowman. Two years later, her mother died, and Bowman and her older sister, Constance, went to Phoenix, Arizona to live with their grandmother. During this time her father lost interest in his machine tool and equipment business and retired. After marrying Edenia Kridelbaugh, her father joined his daughters in Arizona with his new wife. The family moved to San Diego, California, where her father supported the family with his savings. Three years later a third daughter, Billie, was born.

When Bowman was nine years old, she contracted scarlet fever, causing the family to be quarantined for a month. The family celebrated the end of their quarantine by viewing their first talking motion picture. A year later, Bowman developed rheumatic fever, and after several relapses, she had to spend a year in bed at the home of a nurse. At the time, the treatment for rheumatic fever was sunbaths and isolation from everyone, including her sisters. When Bowman became well enough, she studied with a tutor for a year, covering material from the fifth through the eighth grade. The tutor's claim that the square root of two could not be calculated to a point where the decimal would repeat itself fascinated her.

When she re-entered school in ninth grade, she had a profound interest in mathematics. Even when all the other girls had dropped out of the math classes by their junior year, Bowman continued on, and she was the only woman in her physics classes (Kelley 595). While she succeeded in her school work, she had a hard time gaining self- confidence and overcoming her insecurities. She had not developed these qualities because of her isolation. Instead, she relied on Constance to speak for her (Smorynski 77). However, she managed to graduate in 1936 with honors in mathematics and science courses and the Bausch-Lomb medal for all-around excellence in science. Her parents rewarded her achievements with a slide rule that she named "Slippy."

At age sixteen, she enrolled in San Diego State College, now San Diego State University. The college placed emphasis on preparing teachers, so Bowman majored in mathematics and prepared for a teaching career, knowing no other career paths for mathematics. During this time, her father's savings were depleted because of the Depression of the 1930s. Consequently, he was so upset that he committed suicide at the beginning Bowman's sophomore year. Despite her father's death, she continued her education at San Diego College with a tuition of twelve dollars a semester (Reid and Robinson 183). With financial support from her aunt and the income of her sister's teaching position in the San Diego school system, Bowman was able to transfer to the University of California at Berkeley for her senior year. Bowman later recalled her time at Berkeley:

I was very happy, really blissfully happy, at Berkeley. In San Diego there had been no one at all like me. If, as Bruno Bettelheim has said, everyone has his or her own fairy story, mine is the story of the ugly duckling. Suddenly, at Berkeley, I found that I was really a swan. There were lots of people, students as well as faculty members, just as excited as I was about mathematics. I was elected to the honorary mathematics fraternity, and there was quite a bit of department social activity in which I was included. Then there was Raphael. (Reid and Robinson 183)

During her first year at Berkeley, Bowman took the number theory course with the assistant professor, Raphael M. Robinson. Since there were only four students in the class and because of the walks she took with him to discuss modern mathematics, she learned a great deal (Reid and Robinson 183). This also allowed Raphael Robinson and Bowman to get to know each other and after the first semester of her second graduate year at Berkeley, they were married in December of 1941. Because of a rule preventing members of the same family from teaching in the same department, Julia Robinson could not continue to work in her teaching assistantship in the mathematics department. But during World War II, she did work for Jerzy Neyman in the Berkeley Statistical Laboratory on secret military projects (Reid and Robinson 183).

After her marriage, Robinson focused on furnishing her home and starting a family. Becoming pregnant delighted her; however, she lost the baby due to the build up of scar tissue in her heart because of the rheumatic fever. Her doctor advised her not to try to have any more children. The advise devastated Robinson, and she went through a period of depression. It was not until her husband rekindled her interest in mathematics, that she came out of her depression.

With a new surge of life, Robinson began to work for her Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley. Her mentor was Alfred Tarski, a noted Polish logician who began to work at Berkeley during the war (Reid and Robinson 184). Her dissertation [Abstract], Definability and decision problems in arithmetic, "proved the algorithmic unsolvability of the theory of the rational number field" (McMurray 1694). She received her doctorate in 1948.

In that year, Robinson began to work on the Tenth Problem of David Hilbert's famous list: "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" (Reid and Robinson 184). This problem occupied most of her professional career, and in 1950 she presented some of her work in a ten minute speech to the International Congress of Mathematics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In the summer of 1959, Martin Davis and Hilary Putnam sent Robinson their work on a theorem which later became an important part of the solution to the Tenth Problem. Robinson reviewed their work. Davis recalls:

Her first move, almost by return mail, was to show how to avoid the messy analysis. A few weeks later she showed how to replace the unproved hypothesis about primes in arithmetic progression by the prime number theorem for arithmetic progressions. . . [She] then greatly simplified the proof, which had become quite intricate. In the published version, the proof was elementary and elegant. (Reid and Robinson 184)

The Davis-Putnam-Robinson paper was presented in 1961 [Abstract; see also Robin Whitty's Theorem of the Day]. She worked on the problem for over twenty years, building a foundation which Yuri Matijasevic used in 1970 to prove that there is not a general method for determining solvability.

Although a large portion of her time was devoted to Hilbert's Tenth Problem, Robinson also did other work as well. At the RAND corporation, she theorized about the zero-sum game (McMurray 1694). She worked on a problem in hydrodynamics for the Office of Naval Research. She worked on Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaigns in 1952 and in 1956, then she worked for the Democratic party for the next half dozen years (Reid and Robinson 184).

Her outstanding achievements and abilities were recognized during her lifetime. Robinson became the first woman mathematician to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1975. She earned an appointment of full professor at Berkeley in 1976, but because of her health she only carried one-fourth of a normal teaching load. In 1979, Smith College granted her an honorary degree. She was elected to the Association of Presidents of Scientific Societies as President, but she had to step down due to her health. In 1982, she became the first woman president of the American Mathematical Society after four years of being the first woman officer of the society. Around this time, she also was awarded the MacArthur Foundation Prize Fellowship of $60,000 for five years (Reid and Robinson 185). Robinson was also elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1985. All the attention from her work embarrassed Robinson: "All this attention," she wrote in a very significant passage, "has been gratifying but also embarrassing. What I really am is a mathematician. Rather than being remembered as the first woman this or that, I would prefer to be remembered as a mathematician should, simply for the theorems I have proved and the problems I have solved" (Dunham 271).

Robinson learned that she had developed leukemia in the summer of 1984. She died on July 30, 1985. She asked that those who wished to make a contribution in honor of her memory should make a gift to the Alfred Tarski Fund, administered by the mathematical department at Berkeley (Smorynski 79).

June 1997, updated July 2000


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  2. Profile from the 1982 Emmy Noether Lectures of the AWM.
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  14. Roitman, Judith. "Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem, AWM Newsletter, Vol.39, No. 4 (July-August 2009), 9-13. (Review of DVD produced and directed by George Paul Csicsery)
  15. Lamb, Evelyn. "How Julia Robinson helped define the limits of mathematical knowledge,", November 22, 2019.
  16. MathSciNet [subscription required]
  17. Author Profile at zbMath
  18. Mathematics Genealogy Project
  19. Biography at the MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive

Photo Credit: Photographs are from the book Julia, A Life in Mathematics by Constance Reid and are used with permission of the author