A quintessential moment in Dame Kathleen Ollerenshaw's 2004 autobiography occurs as she scrambles up Hawaii's Mauna Kea volcano for a better view of an eclipse in 1991. This is her third trip to see an eclipse and her second in under a year. Clouds had thwarted both previous attempts, and she is determined not to let rising clouds foil her yet again. Her bus was stopped at a barrier. She wrote, "I had a fixation that I must get as high as possible. I grabbed my tripod and camera and clambered up a steep, bracken-covered slope until at last I came to a level spot and set up my gear." After watching the drizzle in dismay from this perch, the moment of the total eclipse was almost biblical. As she described it: "Lo, there appeared a patch of pale blue sky. There was a great shout. At the crucial moment of the onset of totality the clear patch coincided with the sun and moon." This was no ordinary 79-year-old.
Ollerenshaw will celebrate her 100th birthday on October 1. Born in Manchester, England, in 1912, Ollerenshaw has lived almost her entire life in that city. She earned her doctorate in mathematics from the University of Oxford in 1945, worked as a part-time math instructor for several years, served in local government, including as Lord Mayor of Manchester, and became a dedicated amateur astronomer after her husband died. In some ways, her life serves as a counterexample to recent articles questioning whether women can have it all. In other ways, her experience is completely foreign to young women in the early 21st century who are trying to balance career, family and hobbies. She was unavailable for an interview, so her autobiography To Talk of Many Things (Manchester University Press, 2004) is the source of all of her quotes in this article.
Ollerenshaw's most famous contribution to mathematics is her book Most-Perfect Pandiagonal Magic Squares, published by the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA) in 1998 with David Brée, a computer scientist who rented one of her rooms for several years. Magic squares are arrays of numbers in which the sums along the rows, columns and diagonals are all equal. They were able to enumerate and describe an infinite family of magic squares. She was also involved with the IMA in the U.K. and published one of the first solutions to the Rubik's cube in the IMA Bulletin (now the journal Mathematics Today). The Rubik's cube story illustrates her relentless perseverance on any problem she faced: She damaged the tendons in her left thumb so badly with repeated turning of the cube that she required surgery.
In addition to perseverance, Ollerenshaw clearly has an incredible mathematical mind. It is not unlikely that she would be considered a mathematical savant today. In boarding school she developed a technique she calls subliminal learning: She would think about a problem before going to sleep, tracing important aspects of it out with her fingers, and the answer would be "written" on a wall or the ceiling in the morning. (She wrote that she also applied this technique to skating and skiing, two of the many sports she loved.) Terry Edwards met Ollerenshaw in 2001 when he interviewed her in honor of her 90th birthday while working as an administrator for the IMA, and they have developed a friendship since then.* "I regard her as a 'natural' mathematician. It is what she was born to do," he wrote in an e-mail. As an example, he uses her research on magic squares. "When she looks at an incomplete square, she 'sees' the missing numbers without needing to compute them," he wrote. This ability transferred over to Sudoku puzzles when they became popular. Edwards wrote that Ollerenshaw doesn't consider herself particularly clever, but a very hard worker.