1832 - 1916
Mary Everest Boole was born in the village of Wickwar, Gloucestershire, England in 1832. It was not long thereafter that her father, Dr. Thomas Everest, a minister, moved the family to Poissy, France in order to cure his serious illness. At the time, Mary was five years old and her brother, George, was only two. Although growing up in Poissy gave Mary a chance to be exposed to a different culture and language, life was sometimes difficult and lonely. For example, it was hard for the Everest's, coming from the tradition of an English minister, to live in a town that was French Catholic.
Dr. Everest believed strongly in homeopathy, a medical system whose main objective was to promote health and prevent disease. Some customs of homeopathy were extreme, such as baths in ice water to help resist disease. It was during Dr. Everest's curing process that Mary stayed very loyal to him, even participating in some of the homeopathic customs.
It was Mary's uncle, George Everest, who made the family name famous. Colonel Sir George Everest was the Surveyor General of India. He was largely responsible for completion of the trigonometric survey of India along the meridian arc from the south of India extending north to Nepal. The completion of the Indian survey allowed the subsequent survey of Mt. Everest (at the time un-named) and calculation of its summit height. It was later renamed in honor of George Everest. Mary and her Uncle George were very close and George had hoped to adopt her. But Mary loved her parents too much to ever agree to the adoption.
Mary's first introduction to mathematics came from studies with her tutor, Monsieur Deplace, of whom she was very fond. His particular style of teaching made it easy for Mary to do well in her studies and this was something she never forgot. Mary once recalled, "Monsieur Deplace is the hero of my idyll. I wish, though I know that the wish is vain, that I could convey any adequate impression of the way in which he enveloped my life with a protecting influence without the slightest interference with either my thoughts or my feelings" (Tahta 9).
The family moved back to England when Mary was eleven. It was there that Mary was taken out of school and became her father's assistant. Mary did such tasks as teaching a Sunday School class and helping her father with his sermons. Yet, Mary did not end her studies altogether. She used the books in her father's library to teach herself calculus. Although she enjoyed math very much, Mary still had many unanswered questions about her studies. It was when Mary visited her aunt and uncle in Cork, Western Ireland that she had the opportunity to have her questions answered.
Through her uncle, Mary met George Boole, an already famous mathematician. Mary enjoyed her time with Boole both socially and intellectually. After her departure back to England, Mary wrote to him. George then came to England two years later to teach Mary more about mathematics. In addition to tutoring, George was also in the process of writing a book, Laws of Thought, to which Mary greatly contributed as an editor.
Mary's father died a few years later and George was a great friend throughout this difficult time in Mary's life. It was from this consolation that a serious relationship grew and, within the year, the two were married. Even though Mary was 17 years younger than George, they were still very close companions and had a very successful marriage. During the next nine years, Mary and George had five daughters named Mary, Margaret, Alicia, Lucy, and Ethel. Yet, this happiness would not last for long. Tragically, George caught pneumonia and died leaving Mary alone with her youngest child only six months old.
In the following year, Mary accepted a job at Queens College, the first women's college in England. During this time, women were not allowed to either receive degrees or teach at the college, so, although her love was teaching, Mary accepted a job working as a librarian. It was through this job that Mary became an unofficial advisor to the students. She realized that not only did she love teaching but also that she was good at it.
Eventually, Mary began to teach children. Mary soon became recognized by even the Head of the London Board of Education as being an outstanding teacher. One of Mary's pupils was to write later, "I thought we were being amused not taught. But after I left I found you [Mary] had given us a power. We can think for ourselves, and find out what we want to know" (Tahta 6).
Due to a controversy over one of her books, Mary was forced to quit her job at the college. Mary found another job as a secretary for her father's friend, James Hinton. Through Hinton, Mary became interested in evolution and the art of thinking. She believed that it was possible to express all basic notions of the universe with numbers and symbols. At the age of 50, Mary began writing a series of books and articles, publishing them regularly until the time of her death.
Logic Taught by Love was published in 1889. In 1904 Mary published The Preparation of the Child for Science. This book ultimately had a great impact on progressive schools in England and the United States in the first part of the twentieth century. She also invented curve stitching, or what we call today, string geometry, to help children learn about the geometry of angles and spaces. [In 1909, Boole published Philosophy and Fun of Algebra.]
Mary Boole had a fascination with the science of the psychic or spirit world. It took over fifteen years to get her book, The Message of Psychic Science for Mothers and Nurses, published due to the controversy over the subject matter. It was over this book that Mary lost her job as a librarian.
As time passed, Mary's health began to fail. She died in 1916 at the age of 84. Mary Everest Boole was a miraculous woman who, widowed for fifty years, raised her five daughters and made countless contributions towards the mathematical education of many girls and boys.
Mary considered herself a mathematical psychologist. Her goal was to try "...to understand how people, and especially children, learned mathematics and science, using the reasoning parts of their minds, their physical bodies, and their unconscious processes." (Perl 56). Many of Mary Boole's contributions can be seen in the modern classroom today.
Modified, February 2003, December 2011, and March 2013
Photo Credit: The photo of Mary Everest Boole is from the book George Boole by Desmond MacHale and is used with permission of the publisher, Boole Press, 26 Temple Lane, Dublin 2, Ireland (Tel. +353-1-6797655, Fax +353-1-6792469, Email firstname.lastname@example.org).