SHEILA TINNEY / Mathematical physicist


Mathematical physicist

Galway / Dublin

1918 – 2010

Sheila Tinney (née Power) is believed to have been the first Irish woman to receive a PhD in mathematics. She went on to become a respected lecturer and academic.

Tinney was the daughter of Michael Power, professor of mathematics at University College Galway. She was educated in Galway and later in Dublin, where in 1935 she was one of only eight girls in the state to sit the Leaving Certificate higher mathematics paper. She went on to achieve a first-class degree in mathematical science in 1938 and an MA in 1939, both from UCD. Assisted by a National University of Ireland Travelling Studentship, she proceeded to the University of Edinburgh to study crystals under the Nobel laureate Max Born.

1941 was a memorable year for Power. Aged just 23, she graduated from Edinburgh with a PhD, was made an assistant lecturer in UCD, and held a fellowship at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. DIAS had been founded in the previous year and was headed by the renowned physicist, Edwin Schrödinger. He described Power as one of the ‘best equipped and most successful of the younger generation of theoretical physicists’ in Ireland.

By 1945 she had been promoted to lecturer at UCD and in 1948 – 1949 she held a fellowship at the world-leading Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, to study nuclear physics in the company of Albert Einstein. She published on a wide range of topics and her professional network, cultivated in Dublin and in Princeton, led her to co-author papers with Nobel laureates like Schrödinger and Hideki Yukawa.

In 1949, Power returned to Dublin from Princeton and was among the first four women to be elected as full members of the Royal Irish Academy. The Academy was founded in 1785, but until 1949, had elected women as honorary members only.

In summer 1953, Power married the engineer Sean Tinney and was thereafter known as Sheila Tinney. In 1966, she was appointed as associate professor in mathematical physics in UCD. It was only in that year that the ban was lifted on married women holding tenured positions at the university, following a hard struggle for parity of conditions. Tinney thereby joined the small number of women professors at Irish universities. Of the more than forty professors and associate professors appointed by the NUI and its constituent colleges in 1966, only two were women – Sheila Tinney and Lorna Reynolds, Professor of English at UCG.

The Dictionary of Irish Biography notes that Tinney taught large classes in both engineering and science at UCD, leaving her little time or energy for developing her research interests. She is remembered as well dressed and composed, and as a dedicated teacher. Among her students was the noted particle physicist Lochlainn Ó Raifeartaigh, and the mathematician and philosopher Philip McShane, who remembers Tinney in his biography as his ‘best graduate teacher’.

Thanks to herstorian Dr. Angela Byrne for this week’s herstory.