Evelyn Lamb in Scientific American:
Sophie Germain, born on this day, April 1st, in 1776, was a French mathematician. Though it is impossible to know with 100 percent certainty, she was probably the first woman to make significant original contributions to mathematical research. But when I think of her, my admiration is mixed with a profound sense of loss.
Germain fell in love with mathematics when she was a teenager. The story goes that she had to stay indoors because of the French revolution. In her hours of reading, she found a biography of Archimedes in her father’s library. His dramatic (and probably embellished) death scene, in which he is killed by a Roman soldier because he would not stop working on a math problem, captured her imagination. She showed a natural inclination, and though her parents tried to discourage her, she persisted in teaching herself a great deal of math.
Women were not allowed at universities in France at the time, but Germain corresponded with professors at the newly-opened École Polytechnique using the name of Monsieur Antoine-August LeBlanc, a former student. When she eventually revealed her true identity to some of them, she was accepted more than she expected to be but never truly treated as a peer.
Throughout her life, Germain’s lack of a comprehensive formal education in math and isolation from mathematical and scientific society held her back.