At the University of Cambridge in England, a "Wrangler" is a student who gains first-class honours in the final year of the university's degree in mathematics. The highest-scoring student is the Senior Wrangler, the second highest is the Second Wrangler, and so on. At the other end of the scale, the person who achieves the lowest exam marks while still earning a third-class honours degree (that is, while still earning an honours degree at all) is known as the wooden spoon.
Until 1909, the university made the rankings public. Since 1910 it has publicly revealed only the class of degree gained by each student. An examiner reveals the identity of the Senior Wrangler "unofficially" by tipping his hat when reading out the person's name, but other rankings are communicated to each student privately. Therefore, the names of only some 20th-century Senior Wranglers (such as Crispin Nash-Williams, Christopher Budd, Frank P. Ramsey, Donald Coxeter, Kevin Buzzard, Jayant Narlikar, George Reid and Ben J. Green) have become publicly known.
Another notable was Philippa Fawcett. She was educated at Newnham College, Cambridge which had been co-founded by her mother. In 1890, Fawcett became the first woman to obtain the top score in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams. Her score was 13 per cent higher than the second highest score. When the women's list was announced, Fawcett was described as "above the senior wrangler", but she did not receive the title of senior wrangler, as at that time only men could receive degrees and therefore only men were eligible for the Senior Wrangler title. The results were always highly publicised, with the top scorers receiving great acclaim. Women had been allowed to take the Tripos since 1881, after Charlotte Angas Scott was unofficially ranked as eighth wrangler.
The strain of preparing for Tripos could lead to mental breakdown. Students found it necessary to build up their physical endurance. It was noted that "virtually every high wrangler (for whom records exist) participated in some form of regular physical exercise to preserve his strength and stamina."
Obtaining the position of a highly ranked Wrangler created many opportunities for the individual's subsequent profession. They would often become Fellows initially, before moving on to other professions, such as law, the Church, or medicine. Throughout the United Kingdom and the British Empire, university mathematics professors were often among the top three Wranglers.
The order of Wranglers was widely publicised and shaped the public perception of mathematics as being the most intellectually challenging of all subjects. According to Andrew Warwick, author of Masters of Theory, the term 'Senior Wrangler' became "synonymous with academic supremacy".
Top marks in the Cambridge mathematics exam did not always guarantee the Senior Wrangler success in life; the exams were largely a test of speed in applying familiar rules, and some of the most inventive and original students of Mathematics at Cambridge did not come top of their class. Kelvin was second, Bragg was third, De Morgan and Hardy were fourth, Sedgwick fifth, Bertrand Russell seventh, Malthus ninth, Keynes twelfth, and some fared even worse: Klaus Roth was not even a wrangler.
Joan Clarke, who helped to break the Nazi Enigma code at Bletchley Park, was a wrangler at Cambridge and earned a double first in mathematics, although she was prevented from receiving a full degree based on the university's policy of awarding degrees only to men. That policy was only abandoned in 1948.
The present Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, a wrangler, would go on to become one of the world's leading scientists, while also holding the posts of master of Trinity College (Cambridge) and president of the Royal Society.[clarification needed]
Students who achieve second-class and third-class mathematics degrees are known as Senior Optimes (second-class) and Junior Optimes (third-class). Cambridge did not divide its examination classification in mathematics into 2:1s and 2:2s until 1995 but now there are Senior Optimes Division 1 and Senior Optimes Division 2.
Information on the wranglers in the period 1860-1940 can be extracted from the BritMath database:
Many of the wranglers who made careers in mathematics can be identified by searching on "wrangler" in: