Maria Gaetana Agnesi
1718 1799

Maria Agnesi was a famous female mathmatician. She was born in Italy on May 16, 1718 and died on January 9, 1799 in Italy. Maria was the eldest of 21 children. Her father was Pietro Agnesi and because of his wealth he was able to afford her the best tutors in the land. He earned his wealth through silk, but many readings have also stated him as being a mathematican. Maria did many things but her most notable is known as "the witch of Agnesi."

Maria Agnesi was known for being a child prodigy (called the "oracle of the seven tongues); by the time she was nine years old she knew many different languages and would give performances on her knowledge in a special room of her father's home. She was very shy, but she wanted to please her father so she continued to show her talent to many others. Due to the time and the fact that she was a female, higher education for women was not practiced, so at the age of nine she published a Latin discourse defending education for women. This was done with the help of one of her tutors.

When she was twenty she published "Propositiones Philosophicae" which was a series of essays on philosophy and natural science. These essays would be a topic of discussion many times and she would defend them with all her knowledge. Her free time was spent studying religious books and learning mathematics. She wrote a commentary that was never published on de L'Hopital's "Traite analytique des section coniques." Another book that she had published was "Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana." This book was written in Italian, published in her home and was meant to be used as a textbook for her brothers. Her next book had two volumes, "Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana" and was published in 1748. This was to bring her much fame.

Pope Benedict XIV honored her by appointing her to be honorary reader at the University of Bologna, later she was asked to accept the chair of mathematics. No one knows certainly if she accepted or not, but her name remained on the roles for many years.

Another book she wrote "Institutzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana" did not have original works from her, but it was full of examples. In this book Maria discussed a cubic curve now known as the "Witch of Agnesi." The name was a misinterpretation for a work that meant "rope that turns a sail."

Maria's life was not a glorious one. She once asked her father to let her enter the convent, yet he denied her. During the remainer of his life she did as he wished but she lived in closed rooms of his house and helped old sick women. When he died she turned her life over to helpin ill and poor women, never wanting to talk of mathematics again. Later she became the direcor of a facility but turned all the earnings over to the facility. Maria later died in the poorhouse and is buried ina mass grave for the poor with fifteen other bodies.

Contributed by Cris Edelman

References:

  1. Larry Riddle, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, www.scottian.edu/LRiddle/women/agnesi.html
  2. 4000 Years of Women in Science, www.astr.ud.edu/4000ws/AGNESI.html
  3. Lynn M. Osen, Women in Mathematics, The MIT Press, 1992
  4. www-groups.dcs.st-and.ac.uk/~history/mathematicians/Agnesi.html

Home  |  Women  |  Men  |  Topics  |  Activities