Maria Agnesi 1718-1799, Italy, pioneer woman and science and faith

Maria Gaetana Agnesi 1718-1799, Italy

was an Italian mathematician and philosopher. She is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna.[2] She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to serving the poor.

Maria was recognized as a child prodigy very early; she could speak both Italian and French at five years of age. By her eleventh birthday she had

acquired Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin in addition to French and Italian, and was referred to as the "Seven-Tongued Orator".[6] When she was nine years old, she composed and delivered an hour-long speech in Latin to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day. The subject was women’s right to be educated. By fourteen, she was studying ballistics and geometry.[6] When she was fifteen, her father began to regularly gather in his house a circle of the most learned men in Bologna.

Her father remarried twice after Maria’s mother died, and Maria Agnesi ended up the eldest of 23 children, including her half-siblings. 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. Although her father refused to grant this wish, he agreed to let her live from that time on in an almost conventual semi-retirement, avoiding all interactions with society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics.[6]

During that time, Maria studied both differential and integral calculus. Fellow philosophers thought she was extremely beautiful and her family was recognized as one of the wealthiest in Milan. Maria became a professor at the University of Bologna.

The most valuable result of her labours was the Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, which was published in Milan in 1748 and "was regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler." [7] In the work, she worked on integrating mathematical analysis with algebra,[6] with an analysis of finite quantities followed by the analysis of infinitesimals. It was in French translation 1775, English translation 1801.[8] The work was dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, who thanked Agnesi with the gift of a diamond ring, a personal letter, and a diamond and crystal case. Many others praised her work, including Pope Benedict XIV, who wrote her a complimentary letter and sent her a gold wreath and a gold medal.[6]

In 1750, on the illness of her father, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna, though she never served.[6] She was the second woman ever to be granted professorship at a university, Laura Bassi being the first.[12] After the death of her father in 1752 she carried out a long-cherished purpose by giving herself to the study of theology, and especially of the Fathers and devoted herself to the poor, homeless, and sick, giving away the gifts she had received and begging for money to continue her work with the poor. In 1783, she founded and became the director of the Opera Pia Trivulzi, a home for Milan’s elderly, where she lived as the nuns of the institution did.[6] Asteroid 16765 Agnesi (1996) is named for her.


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