Maria Gaetana Agnesi made wonderful contributions in the field of math and philosophy, writing the first book on both integral and differential calculus. She was appointed to the University of Bologna as a professor. 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.
Early Life of Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in May 16, 1718 in Milan, Italy to a wealthy family. Her father, Pietro Agnesi, worked as a math professor at the University of Bologna. 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, Anna Fortunata Brivio. When her mother died Maria, being the eldest child from a large family, retired from public life and stayed home to manage the house.
Maria showed signs of extraordinary intelligence early on in life and she was recognized as a child prodigy. She knew how to speak Italian and French before she even turned 6 years old. By the time young Maria turned 11, she was fluent not just in Italian and French but she could also speak Latin, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Spanish. Maria was 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 amazed 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 obtain an education.
By the time she reached 12, Maria 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 advised to be more active and 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 Agnesi’s mother died, her father remarried twice and she became 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 youths at 14 years of age would be too busy doing much except school and homework. But remember, Agnesi was a prodigy so it comes as no surprise that by this she was already studying geometry and ballistics. Her mind and findings were so impressive that by 15 years of age, her fathetr gathered 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 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, Agnesi was very shy and did not really relish being put in display or asked to talk in front of a group.
Though Agnesi was considered rather beautiful by philosophers and her family was seen as one of the wealthiest, she did not seem interested in marriage; at a time when most women would marry.
It was said by Dirk Jan Struik that Agnesi was the first important lady mathematician since Hypatia who lived in the 5th century A.D. The most valuable work of Agnesi was her work Instituzioni ad uso della gioventu italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth) which she published in Milan in 1748. This two volume comprehensive work was one of the best introductions to the works of Euler and covered algebra, analysis, integral and differential calculus.
Her discussion on a cubic curve led to it being known as “Witch of Agnesi” due to an error with the Italian word “versiera” being mistaken for “versicra” (witch).
Pope Benedict XIV appointed Agnesi as professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna in 1750 after her father became ill.
She also wrote a commentary which focused on Traite analytique des sections coniques du marquis de l’Hopital. It was one of her most highly praised works but it was not published.
Her Later Life
When her father died in 1752, she carried out her long-cherished goal of devoting herself to the study of theology. 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.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi died on 9 January 1799, aged 80.