Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Biography, Facts & Quotes

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

Betsy teaches college physics, biology, and engineering and has a Ph.D. in Biomedical Engineering

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an eighteenth century mathematician who was the first woman ever to be offered a professorship in mathematics. In this lesson, learn more about her life and contributions to mathematics.

Who was Maria Gaetana Agnesi?

In eighteeth century Italy, a gifted mathematician wrote a series of books about math that were studied throughout the world for years. This mathematician, however, was different from most of the other mathematicians working at the time. For one thing, she was a woman who mastered mathematics at a time when women weren't even allowed access to higher education. Her name was Maria Gaetana Agnesi. She became an expert in mathematics while still a teenager, made a big impact on the world by writing several influential mathematics textbooks, and then completely gave up her mathematical studies to focus on charity work when she was older.

Maria Agnesi was a famous eighteenth century mathematician and the first woman ever to be offered a professorship in mathematics
Portrait of Maria Agnesi

Early Life

Maria Agnesi was born in Milan, Italy in 1718 into a wealthy and intellectual family. She was the oldest child in a family of 21 children, and her father had both the money and desire to see that she was well educated. He hired the best tutors he could find, and his young daughter proved to be a fast learner. She excelled at learning languages, speaking fluent French by the time she was five and several other languages before she was ten.

As a teenager, at the urging of her father, she began to study mathematics and excelled at it. Her father would often invite prominent mathematicians, philosophers, and scientists to their home, and Agnesi was expected to participate in discussions of philosophy and mathematics during these frequent parties. She was a shy person, and didn't really enjoy these gatherings, but she participated anyway to make her father happy.

She became something of a celebrity among Italian intellectuals and was hailed as a child prodigy. When her mother died, Maria took over management of the household even though she was still only a teenager. Despite this responsibility and demanding work, she continued to study mathematics.

Contributions to Mathematics

When she was twenty, Maria Agnesi decided to write a textbook that she planned to use to teach mathematics to her younger brothers. She spent the next ten years working on her book, which would finally be published in 1748. The book was called Analytical Institutions, and it made a big splash in the mathematical world. This book focused on the teaching of calculus, and as she wrote in the preface, she intended for the book to be ''... endowed with proper clarity and simplicity..., which proceeds with that natural order which provides, perhaps, the best instruction and the greatest light.''

Front cover of a mathematics textbook written by Maria Agnesi and published in 1748
Front Cover of a book on mathematics written by Maria Agnesi

The book was translated into several other languages, and she became very well known throughout Europe. However, she never really wanted the fame and recognition she received and continued to live a quiet life in her father's house until his death.

Personal Life

Throughout her life, Maria Agnesi was devoutly religious, and at one time even asked her father to allow her to become a nun. He was opposed to the idea, and so she remained at home with him but devoted much of her time to charity work.

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