Sophie Germain was a woman before her time. Some have went as far as to call her revolutionary. She lived during a time when women were not considered equivalent to men, especially where knowledge was concerned. Sophie Germain was a withdrawn child. She was the middle child of Ambrose-Francois and Marie-Made laine Gruguelin Germain.
She grew up in Paris, France; born April 1, 1776 and she died June 27, 1831. She never married, unless you count her marriage to Fermat's Last Theorem. Germain was born in the midst of a Revolutionary era; the American Revolution had begun and 13 years later, the French Revolution (in her own country) broke out. Sophie Germain didn't get to go to a big expensive college, or even a measly little schoolhouse.
She taught herself in the candlelight at night. Of course, that was before her parents found out what she was doing and took her candlesticks, clothes, and heat. She continued to study, though. One must ask what made her love numbers so much. No one knows for sure, but we do know she read a book (from her father's study, where she spent most of her time) about Archimedes and his death. She found it intriguing that one could be so absorbed in geometric means that it would lead to their death.
She thought it must be the greatest thing in the world. In 1794, the Ecole Polytechnique (a college) opened in Paris. It was ideal for young mathematicians who wanted to expand their knowledge. Naturally, it would have been perfect for Germain. Unfortunately, this particular college was reserved for boys only. Through friendships she made with some of the students, she got a hold of lecture notes and, under the name Monsieur Antoine-August Le Blanc (M. Le Blanc for short), handed in papers and problems.
The supervisor of the course, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, noticed a sudden change in M. Le Blanc's problem-solving abilities (M. Le Blanc was a man who was already enrolled as a student, but had left Paris, which the academy had no clue about). Lagrange sought out Le Blanc and was astonished to discover he was a woman. His respect for her work never changed, and to show gratitude, he became her tutor and mentor. Germain's work on Fermat's Last Theorem was her greatest contribution to mathematics. Fermat left a theory that would boggle the minds of mathematicians to come.
His theorem was one that the most educated mathematicians wouldn't even attempt. Fermat's Last Theorem was: x 3 + y 3 = z 3 x 4 + y 4 = z 4 x 5 + y 5 = z 5 x 6 + y 6 = z 6 etc. The Institut de France set a prize competition with a challenge that stated: "formulate a mathematical theory of elastic surfaces and indicate just how it agrees with empirical evidence". The competition deadline was set for two years. Germain was the only entry.
The competition was expanded a total of three times, two years each time. The contest re-opened in 1815 and Germain's third attempt got a prize of a medal of one kilogram of gold. She did not attend the award ceremony, for she felt the "judges did not fully appreciate her work". Germain's work on Fermat's Last Theorem earned her the respect of many. Carl Gauss (arguably the greatest mathematician of his time) had known her and her work. He knew how hard she worked and used his influence as the Professor of Astronomy at the University of Goettingen to get the University to award her an honorary degree.
Tragically, before she could receive this honor, Sophie Germain died of breast cancer. Very few women, have had such an influence as Marie-Sophie Germain. Various names have been bestowed upon her: Revolutionary Mathematician and Math's Hidden Woman, just to name a couple. One thing for sure, she never got the respect she so rightfully deserved, because she was a woman of the 1700's and 1800's.