Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Contributions to Math & Accomplishments

Instructor: Betsy Chesnutt

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

Maria Agnesi is famous for writing one of the first comprehensive mathematics textbooks and for having the Witch of Agnesi bear her name. This lesson will teach you more about her enigmatic life and her accomplishments!

Historic Female Mathematician

In eighteenth century Europe women were not expected to pursue higher education in any field, and were thought to be especially unsuited for technical subjects such as mathematics. However, there was one remarkable woman who would defy all the rules, become a famous mathematician, and be the first woman ever appointed as a professor of mathematics at a university.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) is recognized as the first woman to gain recognition as a mathematician in the Western world
Maria Agnesi

Her name was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and although she made huge contributions to mathematics early in her life, she never considered it to be her true passion; she eventually gave it up to devote her life to caring for sick and elderly people. Agnesi remains one of the most mysterious and interesting people in the history of mathematics. What led her to pursue greatness in mathematics and then leave it all behind?

Early Life and Education

Maria Agnesi was born in 1718 in Milan, Italy into a very wealthy family. Her father was a merchant, but he had always been fascinated by mathematics and other intellectual pursuits. Maria was his first child, and ultimately she would be the oldest of 21 children. Pietro Agnesi wanted his daughter to be well-educated, and he spared no expense in getting the very best tutors for her. She was an excellent student, and learned to speak multiple languages fluently as a young child.

By the time Maria was a teenager, she could often be found discussing mathematics and philosophy with the many educated guests her father invited to their house, although she attended these parties primarily to please her father. Maria Agnesi was extremely intelligent and could converse with her father's educated friends on any number of topics, however she was also extremely shy and did not enjoy these displays at all.

Even from a young age, Maria was very interested in theology, and once asked her father to allow her to become a nun. He refused, but they made a deal that she could remain at home, teach her younger siblings, and live a more private and quiet life.

Books by Maria Agnesi

In 1738, Agnesi's first book, Propositiones philosophicae (Propositions of Philosophy) was published. This book contained essays that were summaries of some of the discussions she had held with her father's intellectual friends.

Around the time her first book was published, Agnesi began work on what would become her masterpiece. She wanted to write a comprehensive mathematics textbook that she planned to use to teach her brothers. In this comprehensive book, which would ultimately be published in two volumes and called Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth), Agnesi clearly explained complex topics from algebra to calculus, and included lots of examples.

The front cover of Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth, a famous mathematics textbook written by Maria Agnesi and first published in 1748
Front cover of Instituzioni analitiche

The textbook was published in 1748 and quickly became used throughout Italy to teach mathematics. The book was translated into several other languages and spread throughout Europe, eventually becoming the preeminent math textbook used in the Western world for many years.

The Witch of Agnesi

In Instituzioni analitiche, Agnesi described a cubic curve that was first studied by Pierre de Fermat in 1630. She referred to it using the Italian word versiera, which is derived from a verb that means to turn. However, when the book was translated into English, the translator made a mistake and thought the word was avversiera, which means wife of the devil or witch. Because of this misunderstanding, the curve was called the Witch of Agnesi in the English translation, and the name stuck.

The cubic curve commonly known as the Witch of Agnesi, named after Maria Agnesi
Witch of Agnesi

This common curve is Maria Agnesi's most famous contribution to mathematics, even though the name came about by accident. The curve known as the Witch of Agnesi can be found in mathematics textbooks throughout the English speaking world even today!

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