There was a time when women weren’t really known for their prowess in the sciences but during the Renaissance, this lady Maria Gaetana Agnesi from Italy really showed her homeland what she was made of. She made wonderful contributions in the field of math and philosophy and deserves to be lauded for her achievements. For folks who have ever enjoyed integral and differential calculus, this is the woman who wrote the first book ever about the subject. She was not only a math genius but she also proved to be a very kind and religious woman who did her part in helping people and keeping her faith. Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, the composer and clavicembalist, is her sister. Although what she contributed to the field of math was very important, she wasn’t like all other famous scientists and mathematicians; she did lead a loud and wild life but just the opposite.
Early Life of Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in May 16, 1718 in Milan, Italy. Hers was a very wealthy family and like all wealthy families of that time they were literate. It also helped that her father, Pietro Agnesi, worked as a math professor at the University of Bologna. Now Pietro Agnesi was ambitious and wanted to raise his family to the ranks of the Milanese nobility. To achieve this, he married a noble woman named Anna Fortunata Brivio. Brivio’s mother died and this gave her reason to retire from public life and stay home to manage the house.
Maria showed signs of extraordinary intelligence early on in life and she had been recognized as a child prodigy. One sign that she was a smart kid beyond her years was that she knew how to speak Italian and French before she even turned 6 years old. By the time young Maria Gaetana Agnesi turned 11, she was fluent not just in Italian and French but she could also speak Latin, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Spanish. She was so good that she was even called the “Seven Tongued Orator.” She was a brilliant child who did her part to help educate her younger brothers.
When she was 9, she wowed some of the most distinguished minds of their day by composing a speech in Latin which lasted an hour long. She talked about the right of women to get an education.
By the time she reached 12, Maria Gaetana Agnesi was struck by an illness no one could identify. However, doctors pointed to her excessive studying and reading as the cause and so she was told to go on horseback rides and to dance. Dancing and horseback riding didn’t work and she still suffered from convulsions so she was told to practice everything in moderation.
After Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s mother died, her father remarried twice and she ended up as the eldest of 23 children, including half brothers and sisters. Aside from taking her own lessons and her performances, she was obliged in essence with the task of educating her siblings. This very task kept her from doing what she so longed to do which was to enter a convent. At that time, she was already very devout. In fact, she asked her father to send her to the convent and he refused but he did allow her to live in semi-retirement in an almost conventual setting.
Her Early Work in Math
Most kids 14 years of age would be too busy doing other things except studying and homework. But remember, Maria Gaetana Agnesi was a prodigy so it comes as no surprise that by the age of 14 she was already studying geometry and ballistics. Her mind and findings were so great that by the time she was 15 years of age, Pietro Agnesi began to gather a group of the most learned men in Bologna so they could hear what she had to say. These meetings were recorded and they can be found in Lettres sur l’Italie by Charles de Brosse. They were also recorded in the Propositiones Philosophicae written by no other than her father. This work by Pietro Agnesi was published in 1738—it was an account of the final performance given by Maria Gaetana Agnesi. In this final performance, she defended 190 theses. It is worth noting that while she was brilliant, Maria Gaetana Agnesi was very shy and did not really like being put in display or asked to talk in front of a group.
Though Maria Gaetana Agnesi was considered rather beautiful by philosophers during that time and her family being seen as the wealthiest, she did not really seem interested in marriage. At a time when most women would be getting married, she worked at the University of Bologna as a professor.
It was said by Dirk Jan Struik that Agnesi was the first important lady mathematician since Hypatia who lived way back in the 5th century A.D. According to experts, the most valuable work of Agnesi was her work Instituzioni ad uso della gioventu italiana which she published in Milan back in 1748. This work was one of the best intros to the works of Euler. Maria Gaetana Agnesi also wrote a commentary which was focused on Traite analytique des sections coniques du marquis de l’Hopital. It was one of her most highly praised works but all they ever really got was the manuscript since she never bothered to publish her work or she just did not want to.
Her Later Life
1750 was quite the year for Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Her father fell ill and Pope Benedict XIV appointed her to the chair of natural philosophy and mathematics and physics at the University of Bologna. But she never served. When Pietro Agnesi died in 1752, she carried out her long-cherished goal of devoting herself to the study of philosophy. At the same time she also devoted her time to helping the sick. She would welcome them to her home where she had a make-shift hospital ready.