International Women’s Day: Wexford nun is the inspiration behind new PhD in SETU

Wexford nun Sr Mary de Lellis was first ever Irish woman to obtain a doctorate in mathematics.

Sr Mary de Lellis (Maggie Gough) at the Catholic University of America, Washington DC, circa1920.

Maria PepperWexford People

A Wexford nun who was the first ever Irish woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, is the inspiration behind a new funded PhD in STEM which will be launched by the South East Technological University on International Women’s Day on Wednesday, March 8.

The Wexford campus of SETU is establishing the STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) doctorate to celebrate Maggie Gough, later to become Sr Mary de Lellis, who received her PhD in mathematics in 1931.

The new PhD programme is part-funded by Maggie’s family, allowing her story and achievements to provide inspiration and encouragement to modern day students in the university.

The Wexford native  who died in 1983, did original research in a highly technical subject at a time when very few women (or even men) got that opportunity.

Margaret Mary (Maggie) Gough was born in 1892 in Rickardstown in Kilmore parish in Wexford and in August 1909, when she was 17, she boarded a ship in Liverpool, bound for the United States and ultimately Texas. She was one of over a dozen young women from the south east of Ireland travelling on the vessel, most of them destined to spend their lives in service to an order of nuns in San Antonio.

She attended the local St John of God primary school and wasn’t the only pupil from the school to travel to Texas as many of her classmates sailed with her to Galveston, also headed for the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

Wexford Fine Gael councillor Jim Moore, a grandson of Maggie’s sister Lizzie was born in the same family homestead in Kilmore. “She left here with a group of other girls from the area, two of whom we knew”, he said.

Maggie Gough never made it back to her native land again, not even for her sister Lizzie's wedding in 1928. "The problem was that if you came home you had to pay for your own transport".

"My grandmother died in 1947 and Sister Mary kept in touch with my grandfather and the family. She was a great letter writer. In the 1960s and 1970s, two of her compatriots used to come home and visit our house. Our experience of Sister de Lellis was letters and presents every Christmas and prayer books came for confirmations and communions."

After taking her vows, Gough took the name Sister Mary de Lellis and embarked on a teaching career far from the public eye. In time, she was permitted to advance her education at the Catholic University of America in Washington DC and did so in three stages, starting in 1920. Her family were largely unaware of the magnitude of her achievements, but they did know she was a maths teacher.

Her MA in 1923 was awarded for a thesis on "The Representability of a Number by an Indefinite Binary Quadratic Form". After a few more years of teaching back in Texas, she earned her PhD with a dissertation entitled "On the Condition for the Existence of Triangles In-and-Circumscribed to Certain Types of Rational Quartic Curve and Having a Common Side".

Her research supervisor Aubrey Landry also oversaw the doctoral dissertation of Euphemia Haynes, who became the first African American women to earn a doctorate in mathematics in 1941.

Sr Mary taught in San Antonio for over 20 years, and then briefly at Incarnate Word Academy in St Louis, Missouri. In 1944, she left the classroom for good due to health issues, and returned to Texas to work as an accountant in a local hospital in Forth Worth, until she retired in 1964.

Jim tried to contact his grand-aunt directly in her later years. "I worked internationally, as an engineer, and in 1981 I was working for an American company. I was down in Texas, in the time before mobile phones and I spoke to one of the sisters in San Antonio. Basically, she was saying that Sister Mary probably wouldn't recognise me as she was disabled. I discovered that she was blind, and may have suffered from what we call Alzheimer's these days. She was a considerable age, and she died in 1983."

"A lot of people from families in our area would have joined religious orders and entered the priesthood. The St John of Gods was a prominent local order, and there was St Peter's College seminary in Wexford town”, he said.

"My aunt made an interesting comment recently that Sister Mary would have gone nowhere if she had stayed here in Ireland, for the simple reason that she came from a very poor background. Her father was a labourer with five acres of land. She would have been used as a skivvy. Going to an order abroad gave her new opportunities."

Gough's achievements and career were fostered and nurtured by emigration to the United States, a familiar story in many Irish households at the time. Women of her calibre and level of achievement were very rare in those days.

Maggie Gough’s legacy and accomplishments are to be acknowledged and celebrated on International Women’s Day as SETU, along with Maggie’s family, launch the new funded PhD in STEM at the university’s Wexford campus.

"No doubt Maggie Gough would be proud to see the opportunity she found and embraced in America now back on home soil. In so doing we are pleased to provide this support and motivation for excellence in memory of an exceptional woman”, said a SETU spokesperson.