May 13, 2021

María Josefa Wonenburger, a forgotten mathematician with two theses … that nobody recognized in Spain

María Josefa Wonenburger, a forgotten mathematician with two theses ... that nobody recognized in Spain


María Josefa Wonenburger Planells was born in Oleiros (A Coruña) on July 19, 1927. Daughter of Julio and Amparo, she had a little sister. His father took care of the family foundry, a business that allowed them to live comfortably. At that time, women did not usually pursue higher degrees. It was not frowned upon that they studied teaching and devoted themselves to teaching, but for most of them marriage and home care awaited them.

María Josefa's family wanted her eldest daughter to study engineering to continue with the family business. But mathematics crossed his path and, although he knew that his chances of pursuing them professionally were limited, Wonenburger did not want to regret the future of having abandoned one of his passions.

For María Josefa, mathematics was both simple and fun. After finishing the baccalaureate in 1944, he had to move to Madrid to pursue a career in mathematics. But it was a moment of great political tension and it was not convenient to live far from home. He had to wait until 1945 to begin his studies at the Central University of Madrid. He stayed at the Residence for young ladies, center in which it was related to many intellectuals of the time.

María Josefa never took notes in the classroom, just listened to not lose any detail. At night, already in the residence, he reproduced the explanations given by the professor.

After five years of career, between 1950 and 1953, he developed his doctoral studies. His father died in 1951 and María Josefa spent six months in Galicia accompanying her mother and sister in that moment of mourning.

Some of his teachers recommended him to travel abroad to complete his training. Thanks to the granting of a Fullbright scholarship He was able to travel to the United States in 1953. After a long boat trip he arrived at the University of Syracuse (New York) to take a previous course before beginning his studies.

His next destination was Yale University, where his supervisor was the well-known algebraist Nathan Jacobson. With him he made his doctoral thesis entitled On the Group of Similarities and its Projective Group in 1957.

A practical joke

Due to lack of funding, she had to return to Spain that same year, where she was not validated as a doctor from Yale University. He had to go back to doctoral courses and a new doctoral thesis, directed this time by the outstanding mathematician Germán Ancochea. The Mathematical Institute Jorge Juan del Superior Council of Scientific Investigations He financed it at this stage.

He defended his thesis, entitled Spinorial representation of similarity groups, and due to a series of administrative problems, she did not achieve her Ph.D. It seemed like a practical joke! Two theses and none recognized in Spain!

A stroke of luck took her to Canada: the mathematician Israel Halperin he had told Nathan Jacobson that he needed someone with knowledge of algebra to collaborate with him in his work on von Neumann algebras. With the few future prospects she had in Spain, María Josefa remained in Canada for six years, the first two with a postdoctoral fellowship and then with a lecturer contract at the University of Toronto. There she was the only woman who occupied a position as a teacher.

Despite his bad luck with his theses, he directed a few. The first one was in Toronto: Robert Moody, a student of that university, asked him to be his tutor. Being a woman and a foreigner, he was surprised. I think it reveals the great mathematical abilities that Maria Josefa had shown her students. Moody received his doctorate from the University of Toronto in 1966.

After her time in Toronto, María Josefa returned to the United States. There he had job offers from several universities, while in Spain his future was uncertain. In our country, to obtain a place, an opposition must pass. Abroad they valued their knowledge, their abilities and their research trajectory.

The end of a brilliant career

María Josefa stayed in Indiana until 1983. It was a very fruitful time scientifically: she met and shared knowledge with great mathematicians, organized, attended and participated in congresses, courses and seminars. There he directed seven doctoral theses.

That same year, his mother became ill. María Josefa did not hesitate to leave everything to return to Spain and take care of her. That's where his brilliant scientific career ended.

Although it remained apart from the academic world, it has finally been valued in Spain. And it has been thanks to the efforts of his friend, Federico Gaeta. This mathematician encouraged María José Souto Salorio and Ana Dorotea Tarrío Tobar, two mathematicians from the Universidade da Coruña, to contact María Josefa so that her story would not fall into oblivion. Thanks to them it is a little more known … and recognized.

Among other recognitions, María Josefa was named honorary member of the Royal Spanish Mathematical Society in 2007 and doctor honoris causa by the Universidade da Coruña in 2010. In 2007, the Women and Science Unit of the Xunta de Galicia created the Prize María Josefa Wonenburger Planells to "recognize those Galician women with remarkable trajectories in the field of science and technology".

Since 2011, at the Paseo de las Ciencias del park of Santa Margarita (A Coruña), a monolith remembers the achievements of this specialist in algebra. Since 2012, a park has been named after him in Oleiros, the place where he was born.

María Josefa died in A Coruña on June 14, 2014. Where would she have come if she had continued with her scientific career in the United States? We will never know. Probably would be one of the great references in mathematics worldwide.

The Conversation

This article was originally published in The Conversation. read the original.


This article is based on the article by María José Souto Salorio and Ana Dorotea Tarrío Tobar María Josefa Wonenburger Planells. Woman and math published in the RSME Gazette in 2006.

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