Maria Agnesi

born: May 16, 1718 in Milan
died: Jan 9, 1799

This work is characterized by its careful organization, its clarity and its precision. There is no other book, in any language, which would enable a reader to penetrate as deeply, or as rapidly, into the fundamental concepts of analysis. We consider that treatise the most complete and best written of its kind.
(French Academy of Science, 1749)

Wrote the first textbook for teaching calculus. Cared for the sick and dying.

Until the 20th century, very few women in Europe or elsewhere received even a rudimentary education, and the path to more advanced studies was usually blocked to them. Consequently, very few women contributed to the development and distribution of the ideas of calculus. Agnesi was an exception and definitely an exceptional woman. She was the oldest of 21 children of a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna, and her education started early. By the age of 9 she was fluent in several modern languages as well as Latin, Greek and Hebrew. During her teens, she privately studied the mathematics of Descartes, Newton, Leibniz, Euler and others. She also tutored the younger children in the family and served as hostess at scientific and mathematical meetings arranged by her father.

Her first book was based on these meetings, and in it she supported the concept of higher education for women. It was published when she was 20. For the next 10 years she worked on her two volume mathematics book, Analytic Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth, which was finally published in 1748. Volume one dealt with algebra and precalculus mathematics, and volume two contained differential and integral calculus, infinite series and differential equations. In it she managed to distill the diverse research writings and methods of a number of mathematicians into a clearly written and well organized textbook which could be used to learn calculus. It also contained a number of her own original contributions to the field.

The book received immediate praise, and the Bologna Academy of Science elected her a member. In 1749 Pope Benedict XIV awarded her a gold medal and a gold wreath set with jewels, and the next year he appointed her to teach mathematics and science at the University of Bologna, an extremely rare position for a women in a time when very few women were allowed to even attend a university. However, she turned down the appointment, and, after the death of her father two years later, she stopped doing scientific work altogether. Agnesi devoted the last 47 years of her life to caring for sick and dying women. She shares a common grave with 15 women from an institution for sick women. Streets, scholarships and schools have been named in her honor.

The name Agnesi now appears most often in connection with a curve called the witch of Agnesi,” a minor contribution of hers. In Italian it was called versiera which means “turning” or “bending.” But the same Italian word also means “she devil” or “witch,” and that is how it was mistakenly translated into English.

Condensed from “The Pioneering Women Mathematicians” by G.J. Tee in The Mathematical Intelligencer, v. 5, No. 4 (1983), pp. 27-36. DTH

Last Updated September 19, 2022