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Maria Agnesi: Mathematician, Philosopher, Theologian, & Humanitarian

Maria Agnesi, Math Teacher

The extraordinary life of mathematician, Maria Gaetana Agnesi, left an indelible mathematical and spiritual mark on the people of her day, which continues to resonate as long as her memory is shared by lovers of math history and humanity. Known as the “oracle of the seven tongues” by the age of nine due to her vast knowledge of various languages, the child prodigy would grow up to be one of the most influential figures of the 18th century, devoting her life to the service of others and the rights of women.

Notable Contributions

  • first female mathematics professor at a university
  • wrote the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus
  • appointed as honorary reader and chair of mathematics at the University of Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV
  • devoted the last four decades of her life to helping the poor, charitable work, and studying theology

Early Life

Maria was born in Milan on May 16, 1718. The eldest of 21 children, her father was wealthy Italian businessman and mathematician named Pietro Agnesi. She was very shy and reserved, but would display her many talents for distinguished guests at the request of her father.

When she was only nine years old, Maria composed, published, and delivered an hour-long discourse in Latin defending equal educational rights for women to some of the most prestigious intellectuals of the day.

At age 20, she published Propositiones Philosophicae, a collection of complex essays based on the vast intellectual discussions on mathematics, natural science, and philosophy which took place throughout the years at the Agnesi home. Many of these essays reaffirmed Maria’s stance on women’s right to education, a topic that was still up for debate at the time.

Maria’s father would not allow her to pursue her dream of becoming a nun, so she devoted much of her time to the study of mathematics. Her interest in math was reaffirmed after reading Marquis Guillaume de l’Hôpital, the first systematic exposition of differential calculus, in her early 20s.

The “Witch of Agnesi”

What began as a textbook aimed at teaching math to her brothers, Agnesi soon turned it into one of the most important mathematical instructional texts of the time. Analytical Institutions covered differential and integral calculus and was one of the first and most comprehensive works on finite and infinitesimal analysis.

Analytical Institutions was clear summary of the state of knowledge in mathematical analysis and held as the standard in math instruction due to it’s clarity, most likely in part from being meant as a teaching tool for her young siblings.

The versed sine curve Agnesi became known for was due to an error of translation. In Analytical Institutions, she defines the curve as a versiera, a word derived from the Latin vertere (meaning ‘to turn’), but the translation to English was mistaken for an abbreviation of the Italian word avversiera, meaning ‘the wife of the devil.’ The curve became known as the “Witch of Agnesi” and the rest was history.

Helping Poor and Sick Women

Following the death of her father in 1752, Maria gave up her career in mathematics and her esteemed teaching position, instead devoting her life to helping others. Agnesi became the head of the Pio Instituto Trivulzo, a home for poor and homeless sick people, especially women. She continued her humanitarian work at the home until her own death in 1799.

It’s clear that Maria Agnesi was a mathematical genius, but what truly defined her as a person is her unwavering dedication to helping those in need. She should be remembered as one of the great math teachers and humanitarians of all time.

Page excerpt from the 1801 translation of "Analytical Institutions" by John Colson, mistakenly translating the curve as a witch.

Above is a page excerpt from the 1801 translation of “Analytical Institutions” by John Colson, mistakenly translating the curve as a witch.

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