“What’s wrong with you, Grace?” Prof Grace Alele Williams 70-year-old formula for solving the toughest mathematical problems

70 years ago, Nigeria’s first female vice chancellor, Prof Grace Alele Williams gained admission into Nigeria’s premier University, University College Ibadan to study Humanities. Among her classmates were Mrs Mabel Segun, Mrs Christiana Amachree, Iphigenia Soluade and others.

She decided early on to face the mother of all sciences, mathematics, which was a core part of her course, with the highest measure of tough self-love she could muster. Of course, it takes one mother to face another mother. How many who have observed the bonding that grows between a mother and her suckling infant have attempted to understand the dynamics of that connection when the same mother decides it is time to wean the child? Surely, it takes one mother to face another. So she voted for tough self-love with her feet, waking up most nights to tackle difficult mathematical problems. In the process she developed just the right combination of industry that solving mathematics required. She developed the rhythm, and by habit, the interest required to effectively manage this subject that often disarm many people at the first encounter.

Beyond the matter of habit and constant engagement with the subject, she refused to excuse herself when some problems proved too hard to solve. She left the subject momentarily and focused on herself, challenging her mental faculties in a way some would think strange or maybe even harsh. The likes of Mrs Mabel Segun whose rooms were not far from hers, often heard as she scolded herself in the middle of the night, while trying to find her way around tough mathematical problems. “What’s wrong with you, Grace? Are you mad?” were some of the tough questions she asked herself when the spirit was willing but the flesh was being weighed down with weakness, as it were.

These questions were arguably, her universal formula for solving many of the tough problems she encountered along the way. In a sense, they embodied the dictum that no problem can withstand the intense and prolonged application of the human intellect if one does not contemplate failure or excuse and rationalize defeat.

At the end of day, this universal formula delivered the holy grail for her, as it were. She conquered the ‘tough subject’ and eventually became one of Nigeria’s Mathematics icons and academic administrators.

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