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Mary Lucy Cartwright

1900 - 1998 
Additional Information

Some Important Contributions:

"Mary Cartwright made many contributions in classical analysis, but i best remembered by many for her work on forced nonlinear oscillations. On reading her papers on these latter applications, it is clear that she had a deep and abiding appreciation for the physical phenomenon as well as its underlying mathematics. Her prescient work (especially with Littlewood) anticipated some of the geometrical ideas that are fundamental to chaotic dynamics and represents an important milestone in the evolution of our thinking about dynamical complexity."   -- William Newman

Some Important Publications:

"On non-linear differential equations of the second order," Jour. London Math. Soc. 20: 180 (1945) with J. E. Littlewood.

"From non-linear oscillations to topological dynamics," Jour. London Math, Soc. 39: 1931 (1964).

"Collected papers of G.H. Hardy", edited by a committee appointed by the London Mathematical Society. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966-1979. 7 v.


Yarrow Research Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge
Fellow, Royal Society London, 1947
President of the Mathematical Association, 1952
President of the London Mathematical Society, 1963
Royal Society Sylvester Medal, 1964
London Maths Society De Morgan Medal, 1968
Dame of the British Empire, 1969
Yarrow Research Fellow, Girton College, Cambridge


1935-1959 Lecturer, Cambridge University
1959-1968 Reader in Theory of Functions, Cambridge University
1935-1948 Director of Studies in Mathematics, Girton College, Cambridge University
1949-1968 Mistress, Girton College 1968-1998
Assorted Visiting Professorship


B.A. St. Hugh's College, University of Oxford, 1923
D.Phil. University of Oxford, 1927


Professor Freeman Dyson, Professor William Newman

Additional reading

Obituary in The Daily Telegraph

Mactutor History of Mathematics

Agnes Scott College Biographies of Women Mathematicians Web Site

Additional Information/Comments:

"When I was a student in Cambridge I heard her lecture about the pathological behavior of non-linear amplifiers. The radars in World War 2 were driven by amplifiers which behaved badly when pushed to high power-levels. The Royal Air Force blamed the manufacturers and sent the radars back for repair. Cartwright showed that the manufacturers were not to blame. The Van de Pol equation was to blame. The forced Van de Pol equation is the standard equation describing a non-linear amplifier. Cartwright studied the solution of the Van de Pol equation including sinusoidal forcing and discovered the unexpected phenomenon that is now called chaos. As the power is increased, the periodic solutions go through a series of higher and higher subharmonic and finally become aperiodic. The aperiodic solutions have disastrous effect on the radar, but have a beautifully intricate topological structure. Cartwright published her discoveries at the end of the war, but nobody paid much attention to her papers and she went on to other things. She became famous as a pure mathematician. Twenty years later, chaos was rediscovered by Ed Lorenz and became one of the most fashionable parts of physics. In recent year I have been calling attention to Cartwright's work. In 1993 I received an indignant letter from Cartwright, scolding me because I gave her more credit than she thought she deserved. I still claim that she is the original discoverer of chaos. She died, full of years and honors, in 1998."

-- Freeman Dyson

"Even at the age of 96, the TV documentary "Our brilliant careers" captured the sharp sparkle of her wit."

-- Caroline Series

Field Editor:

Professor William Newman

Submitted by:

Byers/ Helen Aslanian

Original citer's name:

Freeman Dyson

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latest revision {4/30/97 mjw} 3/16/01 nb