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Shelia Tinney (1918-2010)

Irish mathematical physicist whose PhD from the University of Edinburgh made her the first Irish-born and -raised woman to receive a doctorate in the mathematical sciences

Shelia Tinney

Shelia Tinney (née Power) was born on 15 January 1918 in Galway city, fourth daughter of Michael Power, professor of mathematics in University College Galway, and Christina Power (née Cunniffe). She had five siblings.

Her father's mathematical interests included the theory of complex functions, and,  towards the end of his career, he and his daughter were able to attend the same international mathematical colloquia. Her mother died in 1930, leaving a family of six children all under 15; Sheila was 12.

Highest marks

Sheila attended the Dominican College, Taylor's Hill, Galway, and then went to St Mary's Dominican Convent, Cabra, Dublin, where she took her leaving certificate examinations in 1935. Unusually, she took honours mathematics, one of only eight girls in the country to do so, and had the highest marks in geometry and also in Latin of all Irish girls in that year. Equally unusually, Power opted to study mathematics, first in University College Galway for a year, then in University College Dublin, from where she graduated in 1938 with a first-class degree in mathematical science, followed by an MA the following year. Her results were so outstanding that she was awarded a National University of Ireland travelling studentship prize, before heading to the University of Edinburgh to work on a doctorate. Her supervisor was the celebrated physicist and mathematician Max Born; she worked with him on the stability of crystal lattices, and was awarded a PhD by Edinburgh in 1941. She is believed to be the first Irish woman to receive a doctorate in the mathematical sciences. Her first paper, based on her thesis, appeared in 1942.


In 1941 she was appointed to an assistant lectureship in University College Dublin, at the age of 23, and also held a part-time fellowship in the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS). A year later, she was the only woman to attend an international colloquium in the institute, at which the Nobel prize winner Paul Dirac lectured on quantum electrodynamics, a topic on which Shelia herself lectured and published several papers. She was promoted to statutory lecturer in 1945.

From September 1948 to June 1949 she took leave of absence to go on a fellowship to the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where she worked on aspects of nuclear physics. Colleagues there included Albert Einstein and Freeman Dyson. 

In 1949, on her return to Dublin, Shelia was one of the first four women to be elected to full membership of the Royal Irish Academy, and later served on its council from 1975–6.  She retained her connection with DIAS as a research associate (1954–7), and became an associate professor in mathematical physics in University College Dublin in 1966. However, the heavy teaching load with which she coped throughout her career (she taught engineering as well as science students) meant that there was little time for new research. She married engineer Sean Tinney in 1952.


Shelia was also a gifted and dedicated amateur musician; music was very important to her, as part of her heritage from her mother, and was very much a family affair. Her son Hugh Tinney became a celebrated professional pianist, and one of her two daughters, Ethna, was also a concert pianist and producer of music programmes for RTÉ, while her sister-in-law Mary Catherine Tinney was an enthusiastic musician on top of being one of Ireland's first women career diplomats.

Sheila Tinney retired from University College Dublin in 1978. By the mid-1990s she was suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and she eventually had to move into a nursing home, where she spent the last nine years of her life. She died in the Molyneux Home, Dublin, on 27 March 2010.


Royal Irish Academy (external)

MacTutor History of Mathematics archive (external)