Some Famous Mathematicians
This is an account of three famous women mathematicians
They were Hypatia who lived from 370 to 415; Maria Gaetana Agnesi who lived from 1718 to 1799; Emilie de Breteuil who lived from 1706 to 1749.
Hypatia, born in 370, was the daughter of Theon, a professor of Mathematics in Alexandria (modern Cairo). She was highly educated by her father who wanted to create ‘the perfect human being’.
She travelled and studied in Athens also. When she returned to Alexandria she was invited to lecture on mathematics and philosophy.
Hypatia invented the astrolobe and the planesphere for studying astronomy. She wrote many treatises on mathematics and was revered as an oracle.
She said she was ‘wedded to the truth’ and refused proposals of marriage even from princes.
Her philosophy was different from that of the Christians and the Patriarch (Bishop) Cyril inspired a mob to sacrifice a virgin. The mob caught her and tortured her to death. No-one was punished for her murder in 415 at the age of 45.
After the fall of Rome in 476 there followed 1000 years of decline of learning and civilization. In the known world of Europe misogyny prevailed. Even the revolutionary Luther was opposed to the education of women. But in Italy these ideas had not taken as firm a grip and women occasionally became professors in universities.
The most famous Italian woman scholar was Maria Gaetana Agnesi. She was born in 1718, the daughter of a professor of Mathematics in Milan. She was the eldest of 21 children.
At the age of 9 she mastered many languages such as Latin, Greek, Hebrew as well as other languages. Her father held parties where she took part in philosophical debates with professors.
At the age of 20 she gave up the parties as she was rather shy and wanted to become a nun. Her father would not allow her. She never married but continued studying mathematics as well as caring for her younger brothers and sisters.
Maria often sleep-walked and wrote answers to difficult maths problems which she could not solve during the day. She especially studied the plane cubic curve given by the equation xy² = a²(a – x ) also known as a ‘versiera’ or ‘turned curve’ – a word which also was the slang version of ‘wife of the devil’. The curve became known as the ‘witch of Agnesi’.
The Pope appointed her as honorary lecturer in Mathematics in Bologna in 1750 at age 32. However, by age 44 she had abandoned mathematics and devoted her time to charitable projects in Milan which she continued until her death in 1799 at age 81.
In France, around the same time, Emilie de Breteuil had a more difficult task in being accepted as a scholar. Emilie was born in 1706, the daughter of the Head of Protocol at Court. Women were expected to hide their intellectual talents. But Emilie mastered many languages such as Latin, Italian, and English.
She loved mathematics and translated Newton’s work into French and added to it.
At age 19 she married the 34 year old Marquis du Châtelet. They had 3 children by the time she was 27. At that stage she befriended the famous philosopher and writer Voltaire. Her husband agreed to the ménage à trios.
She was capable of dancing, feasting and gambling all night and then getting up to work out mathematical problems before breakfast.
At age 42 she fell in love once more with the Marquis de Saint-Lambert and had a child with him – a girl. Her two lovers persuaded her husband that the child was his. Remarkably, she did not stop writing on theories of Newton even when she was giving birth. Sadly, a few days later she died and her daughter died a few days after that.
Adapted from Women in Mathematics.
Page by Neil Hallinan