Thank you to Jimi Cullen, who suggested I repost his blogpost about his grandmother on GGSTEM! Jimi’s blog focusses on his thoughts, interests, and experiences in mathematics, theoretical computer science, and with STEM ethics and diversity.
Today (October 14) is Ada Lovelace day: a day to recognise the contribution of women in STEM fields, many of whom haven’t received the recognition they deserve over the centuries up to now. It’s a good day to talk about admirable women in STEM, and whilst the day is named after one very worthy woman, it’s also a good opportunity to emphasise that there are and have been many great female scientists.
I decided that today, Ada Lovelace day and four days after the second anniversary of her death, would be a good day to blog about my grandmother, Ann Rosemary Baker-Smith (1): mathematician, businesswoman, and pioneering programmer.
Ann was very modest and didn’t often talk about her career and achievements, and unfortunately not much is known for sure about her scientific pursuits. After she died two years ago after a very short illness, I asked her close remaining family members about it, but sadly the people who would have known the stories had already passed away themselves. She deserves a much better and fuller blog post than this, but I’ll try to fill in what little she told me with relevant anecdotes to make up for the lack of details.
She was born into a large working class family in North London, with no family tradition of pursuing higher education. From a young age she was intelligent and capable, and never one to shy from a gamble, so she became the first in her family to go to university, where she studied mathematics.
People sometimes ask me what drew me to mathematics, and whether anyone in my family was a mathematician. My mind always goes to my grandmother, but in fact our mathematical interests are quite different. While I’m interested in the abstract and theoretical, she was always drawn to useful, applicable mathematics. When I was about 16 and just thinking about doing a maths degree, she asked me what area of maths I was interested in. I didn’t really know, but I’d just finished reading Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh, so I said I was interested in number theory… to which her response was “really? Sequences of numbers and things? Boring!”.
So when it came time for her to pursue postgraduate study, she chose a more tangible field: she started a PhD in geometry. She later gave me a small box of wooden models of various geometric shapes which she’d kept from her PhD days. Although she had moved on from academic mathematics, she never lost her interest in it.
Her doctoral studies did not go as smoothly as she would have hoped. Her supervisor died when she was only half way through. Although the university found her a replacement supervisor, they did not get on well at all. A PhD is tough in the best of circumstances, and support systems were not as good then as they are now, so she dropped out without finishing her thesis. This was the end of her academic career, but far from the end of her contributions to science and technology.
She had no background in physics, but what is physics if not applied mathematics (2)? She took a job for a short while as a physics teacher. Her no-nonsense approach to getting things done made her a capable teacher, although she would later laugh with me that she was often learning the material as she taught it to her students!
Later, she learned a skill which stayed with her for the rest of her life: she became a programmer. Unfortunately, from this point until the early 1990s I don’t know much about her career, but I believe she worked for IBM for a while.
When I was deciding to study computer science and mathematics, she tried to warn me about the rapidly changing nature of computing (and actually encouraged me to consider physics instead!). It’s easy to think about the differences between Python 2 and Python 3, but when I consider the paradigm shifts she saw between the late 1960s and the 2010s, I can see why she wanted to warn me!
After I was born, she and her second husband (Jim Baker-Smith) started a company called Datas, which was a portmonteau of ‘data’ and ‘asbestos’. She was programming again, creating bespoke database management software for business clients. (The other half of the business was training asbestos inspectors). She was the only programmer at the company, but was successful and had a good few clients who relied on her consistent coding.
As an old-school programmer who had learned on punch-cards, she did not particularly keep up with consumer technology later in her life. As a child I was surprised that she could make part of her living writing software, but that she was less comfortable with things like email. As I got older I realised just how much technical knowledge, ability, and experience she had, but that most of it was just for a different era of computing.
She was a very glamorous family woman who loved to have fun. She was an obstacle-overcoming, stereotype-busting mathematician and programmer. Although not famous like many of the women celebrated on Ada Lovelace day, I think she is a great example to show that women from all sorts of backgrounds have been in STEM, learning, teaching, and creating, for a long time. I’m very proud to be her grandson!
- She had three names in her lifetime: she was born Ann Chambers, then became Ann Cullen when she married my grandfather, and in 1995 married the love of her life, and became Ann Baker-Smith.
- Only teasing, physicists.