Maria Agnesi

Mathematician, Philosopher, Philanthropist

Dates: May 16, 1718 - January 9, 1799

Known for: wrote first mathematics book by a woman that still survives; first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university

Occupation: mathematician, philosopher, philanthropist

Also known as: Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Maria Gaëtana Agnesi

About Maria Agnesi

Maria Agnesi's father was Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy nobleman and a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna. It was normal in that time for the daughters of noble families to be taught in convents, and to receive instruction in religion, household management and dressmaking. A few Italian families educated daughters in more academic subjects; a few attended lectures at the university or even lectured there.

Pietro Agnesi recognized the talents and intelligence of his daughter Maria. Treated as a child prodigy, she was given tutors to learn five languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, French and Spanish) and also philosophy and science.

The father invited groups of his colleagues to gatherings at their home, and had Maria Agnesi present speeches to the assembled men. By age 13, Maria could debate in the language of the French and Spanish guests, or she could debate in Latin, the language of the educated. She didn't like this performing, but she could not persuade her father to let her out of the task until she was twenty years old.

In that year, 1738, Maria Agnesi assembled almost 200 of the speeches she had presented to her father's gatherings, and published them in Latin as Propositiones philosphicae -- in English, Philosophical Propositions. But the topics went beyond philosophy as we think of the topic today, and included scientific topics like celestial mechanics, Isaac Newton's gravitation theory, and elasticity.

Pietro Agnesi married twice more after Maria's mother died, so that Maria Agnesi ended up the eldest of 21 children. In addition to her performances and lessons, her responsibility was to teach her siblings. This task kept her from her own goal of entering a convent.

Also in 1783, wanting to do the best job of communicating up-to-date mathematics to her younger brothers, Maria Agnesi began to write a mathematics textbook, which absorbed her for ten years.

The Instituzioni Analitiche was published in 1748 in two volumes, over one thousand pages. The first volume covered arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, analytic geometry and calculus. The second volume covered infinite series and differential equations. No one before had published a text on calculus that included the methods of calculus of both Isaac Newton and Gottfried Liebnitz.

Maria Agnesi brought together ideas from many contemporary mathematical thinkers -- made easier by her ability to read in many languages -- and integrated many of the ideas in a novel way that impressed the mathematicians and other scholars of her day.

As recognition of her achievement, in 1750 she was appointed to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna by an act of Pope Benedict XIV. She was also recognized by the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria.

Did Maria Agnesi ever accept the Pope's appointment? Was it a real appointment or an honorary one? So far, the historical record does not answer those questions.

Maria Agnesi's name lives on in the name that English mathematician John Colson gave to a mathematical problem -- finding the equation for a certain bell-shaped curve. Colson confused the word in Italian for "curve" for a somewhat similar word for "witch," and so today this problem and equation still carries the name "witch of Agnesi."

Maria Agnesi's father was seriously ill by 1750 and died in 1752. His death released Maria from her responsibility to educate her siblings, and she used her wealth and her time to help those less fortunate. She established in 1759 a home for the poor. In 1771 she headed up a home for the poor and ill. By 1783 she was made director of a home for the elderly, where she lived among those she served. She had given away everything she owned by the time she died in 1799, and Maria Agnesi was buried in a pauper's grave.

About Maria Agnesi

  • Categories: mathematician
  • Places: Milan, Italy, Habsburg Empire
  • Period: 18th century
  • Religious Associations: Roman Catholic

Print Bibliography

  • Smith, Sanderson. Agnesi to Zeno: Over 100 Vignettes from the History of Math. 1996.
  • Tilche, Giovanni. Maria Gaetana Agnesi.