Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Maria Agnesi was the first woman mathematician in the Western world to achieve a reputation in mathematics, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Born May 16, 1718 in Milan, Italy to a mathematics professor father, Pietro Agnesi, Maria's main focus was differential calculus. She was a child prodigy from the beginning, mastering seven languages by the age of nine and earning herself the title "oracle of seven tongues." During her teenage years she took on mathematics, mostly for the sake of her father. Her most famous work was called Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della giovent italiana, or Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth, which was published in 1748. This was originally started as a textbook for Agnesi's brothers, but grew into a more serious effort. In whole, the book gathered and explained the general mathematical knowledge of the time. In this publication, she discussed a versed sine curve, now called the "Witch of Agnesi" (see cover). It was not called this because Maria was thought to be a witch, but because of a simple translation error. In Italian, "versiera" means curve, but over time it has been misprinted as "avversiera," which means she-devil or witch. The Witch of Agnesi graphs the Cartesian Equations y(x2+a2)=a3 or x=at, y=a/(1+t2). This curve had been previously studied by Guido Grande and Fermat in 1703, though Agnesi was credited with the study and solution of it. This book was dedicated to the empress Maria Theresa. Agnesi also wrote a commentary on L'Hospital's Traite analytique des section coniques, though it was never published.


In 1749, Maria Agnesi was appointed Chair of Higher Mathematics at the University of Bologna by Pope Benedick XIV. The pope said this of Agnesi and her work:


Permit me, mademoisells, to unite my personal homage to the plaudits of the entire Academy. I have the pleasure of making known to my country an extremely useful work which has long been desired, and which has hitherto existed only in outline. I do not know of any work of this kind which is clearer, more methodic or more compreshensive than hyour Analytical Institutions. There is none in any language which can guide more surely, lead more quickly, and conduct further those who wish to advance in the mathematical sciences. I admire particularly the art with which you bring under uniform methods the divers conclusions scattered among the works of geometers and reached by methods entirely different. (H. J. Mozans, Women in Science, [N. Y.: D. Appleton, 1913])


She served in the position of Chair of Mathematics for two years, 1750-1752, until the death of her father. He was the driving force behind her interest in mathematics, and she immediately stopped her practice of the subject after he died. Some speculate that the only reason she entered into the field was because of her father's love for mathematics. Maria was quiet and deeply religious, and, unlike others of her time, was not looking to become a well-known mathematician. When she gave up mathematics after the death of her father, she worked at a home for ill and dying women. She never again took an interest in mathematics, and helped the homeless and needy until her death on January 9, 1799.


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