A prodigy's story: the math genius turned ultra-Orthodox professor
Considered a child genius, Ruth Lawrence broke academic records and went on to study and teach at some of the best institutions on earth; her development in the field of math was partly attributed to her overbearing father, from whom she would later distance herself; these days she leads a more quiet life, as a Math professor at Hebew U.
As a young girl, Ruth Lawrence was considered “the brainiest child in Britain,” and was even ranked among the world’s ten smartest people—together with Stephen Hawking and chess grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgár. For the past 20 years, though, Lawrence has been living a relatively modest life out of the spotlight, as an ultra-Orthodox Mathematics professor at Hebrew University.
Her early years were filled with unbelievable accomplishments and a tight-knit, almost claustrophobic relationship with her father, Harry. At age ten, she became the youngest person ever to gain entry into the prestigious Oxford University. She would go on to complete her degree within two years and become the only Math student in her year to receive a top grade. She finished her PhD at Oxford at age 18, and at age 19 took on her first academic position, as a junior professor at Harvard University.
During her time at Oxford, Ruth’s father would chaperone and join her in lectures. Considered inseparable, he received a great deal of criticism for his constant presence and very hands-on method of nurturing his daughter’s rare level of aptitude.
The senior Lawrence seemed to always have a vested interest in his daughter’s education, and when she was five he quit his job to home school her.
Harry had previously tried “hot-housing” another one of his children, attempting to cultivate his older daughter, Sarah, into a genius as well. However, his first wife refused to allow it and eventually she and Harry divorced.
He then married Ruth’s mother, Sylvia, who was more inclined toward his highly focused methods of developing intelligence. Ruth’s younger sister, Rebecca, has said that their father had also attempted to shape her into a prodigy, but since she had initially shown an inclination toward the piano, it was their mother who was tasked with developing her musical talents.
Ruth’s father joined her when she decided to move to the United States, and following his divorce from her mother, the father and daughter jointly purchased a house in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where at the time Ruth had been teaching. Their alternative familial setting ended, though, when Ruth decided to move to Jerusalem and marry a fellow math professor.
These days, Ruth is a mother of four and is still teaching at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In a departure from her secular upbringing, she has become an observant Jew, covering her hair and reportedly refusing to allow men into her house when her husband it out. While her career has not turned her into the second coming of Albert Einstein, as was predicted during her Oxford days, she is still considered an exceptional mathematician.
Ruth has stated in the past that she would never put her own children through the strict teaching methods her father had imposed on her and her sister Rebecca, which included a ban on playing with friends their own age so as not to clutter their minds with “trivial conversation and pointless playing.”
When asked about such methods, Harry doubled down, saying that “The idea that it's a time to mess around and do whatever they like is absolutely wrong.” He added that “childhood’s not a time to be playing around, but a time to be developing.”
The bond between father and daughter appears to have been substantially loosened after Ruth moved to Israel. Harry said that he does not see Ruth or her children very often, and he has not visited her in Israel since her wedding, 18 years ago. He sees his daughter Rebecca even less.
Harry admitted to missing Ruth, but explained that “girls grow up and they become women. They marry and have children. This is all natural and normal.” He remains at Ann Arbor, living in the house they had bought together.