Maria Gaetana Agnesi

by Allison Carney

Early Years & Mathematical Training

Maria was born in Renaissance Italy on May 16, 1718. She was born into a wealthy and literate family. She was the oldest of the 21 children that her father, a wealthy silk merchant, had with his three wives (Unlu, 2014). She was recognized as a child prodigy very early. She spoke French by the age of five and had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and several modern languages by the age of nine. She was nicknamed the "oracle of the seven tongues" (Edelman). During her teens, Maria mastered mathematics. The Agnesi home was a gathering place for the most distinguished intellectuals of the day. Maria participated in seminars, engaging with guests in philosophical and mathematical discussions (Unlu, 2014). Many sources say Maria was shy and did not like participating in these meetings. When her mother died, she took over management of the household, giving her a reason to "retire from public life" (Unlu, 2014).


Her father provided her with the best available tutors who were all educated young men from the Church (Unlu, 2014). Due to the time period, higher education for women was not practiced. 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 (Unlu, 2014).

Accomplishments

Maria is said to be one of the most important and extraordinary figures in mathematics during the 18th century. At the age of twenty, she began working on her most important work, Analytical Institutions, dealing with differential and integral calculus. She originally intended it to be a textbook for her brothers but it grew into a more serious effort (Unlu, 2014). The result was separated into two volumes. When her work was published in 1748, it caused a sensation in the academic world. It was one of the first and most complete works on finite and infinitesimal analysis. Maria's great contribution to mathematics with this book was that it brought the works of various mathematicians together in a systematic way with her own interpretations. The book became a model of clarity (Unlu, 2014). It was widely translated and used as a textbook. It is predicted to have inspired the work of Euler (Edelman). Today, it is the oldest surviving math book written by a woman.


Outside of mathematics, she published Propositiones Philosophicae, a series of essays on philosophy and natural science, in 1738. These essays were based on the discussions of the intellectuals who gathered at her father's home. Throughout these essays, she defended 191 different theses (O'Connor & Robertson, 1999).


She is best known for formulating the "Witch of Agnesi," a versed sine curve (Unlu, 2014). The modern form of the curve and equation are shown below. The curve was originally studied by Pierre de Fermat (Edelman). The formula has recently found real-world applications in modeling waves as well as hills in topography.

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Later Years

After the success of Analytical Institutions, Maria was elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences by Pope Benedict XIV (O'Connor & Robertson, 1999). The university sent her a diploma and her name was added to the faculty. There is debate over whether or not she accepted this appointment (Unlu, 2014). By this time, she had devoted herself to her work with charity. When her father died, she gave up any further work in mathematics. There are many hypotheses stating her father influenced her work and it may have been only to please him. Her passion was in religion. She never married. When she was younger, she asked her father if she could join a convent but he denied her request (Edelman). She devoted the rest of her life to the homeless and the sick. When a home for the sick was opened, Maria was appointed as director (Unlu, 2014). She took care of ill and dying women until her own death on January 9, 1799.

On her 296th birthday this past May, Google designed a homepage to honor her and her contributions to mathematics.

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Resources

Edelman, C. (n.d.). Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Retrieved December 7, 2014.

O'Connor, J., & Robertson, E. (1999, Jan. 1). Maria Gaëtana Agnesi. Retrieved December 7, 2014.

Unlu, E. (2014, Mar. 6). Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Retrieved December 7, 2014.