Shakuntala Devi was born in Bangalore, India, on 4 November 1929 to an orthodox Brahmin family. Her father, however, had rebelled against his priestly fate to become a trapeze artist and lion tamer in the circus. He first discovered Shakuntala’s unusual mathematical talents during card tricks when she was three years old.
She showed such an amazing facility for memorizing numbers and, soon after, for rapid mental calculations, that her father quit his circus job and went on tour with her. By age six, her abilities were sufficiently interesting that she was welcomed to the University of Mysore to demonstrate.
Her performances in these road shows were so popular that soon she became the sole breadwinner of the family — a huge responsibility for such a young child. Then in 1944, she and her father moved to London. From there, they toured such diverse places as Europe and New York City, showcasing her innate abilities, gained without benefit of a formal education.
During a visit to Southern Methodist University in Texas in 1977, Shakuntala Devi amazed the world by providing the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. It took the specially programmed UNIVAC-1101 computer an additional 12 seconds to finish computing and confirm her answer. No one had seen anything like it before. Her rapid mental calculations seemed virtually impossible. She was called by some the “human computer.” Her timing is even more remarkable when you consider the aforementioned 50 seconds included the time it took for her to recite the 26-digit answer: 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730.
In 1982, the Guinness Book of Records (now known as the Guinness Book of World Records) recognised her for a record-breaking feat she performed on 18 June 1980 when she correctly multiplied two 13-digit numbers randomly selected by the Computer Department at Imperial College, London, in 28 seconds.
In 1988, Professor Arthur Jensen also tested her abilities at the University of California-Berkeley. Asking her questions, such as the cube root of 61,629,875 and the seventh root of 170,859,375, Professor Jensen discovered she could typically provide the solution to the problem before he finished writing it down.
Shakuntala Devi was also a Hindu astrologer, cookbook writer, novelist, and writer of math books, including Figuring: The Joy of Numbers, and Mathability: Awaken the Math Genius in Your Child.
Although her research and writing on homosexuality was largely overlooked at the time, in 1977, she wrote what is now considered a pioneering work on the subject called The World of Homosexuals. She was quoted during a documentary interview as saying her interest in the subject came from having been married to a homosexual man, awakening in her a desire to truly understand it.
She was married to Paritosh Banerjee, an officer in the Indian Administrative Service, but they divorced in 1979. One child was born to them. In 1980, she ran for political office as an independent against Indira Ghandhi, but she was not elected.
She died on 21 April 2013 in Bangalore. She was 83 years old and is survived by her daughter, Anupama Banerjee.