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1 Day to Go: Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Maria Agnesi is the penultimate female Mathematician. Today’s profile is a short one, because tomorrow there will be plenty – I can’t wait to share with you the podcast, the final female Mathematician profile for now, and some bonus extras!

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born on {16}^{\text{th}} May 1718 in Milan, Italy. Aged 11 she spoke 7 languages (Italian, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, Latin). She’d regularly defend a series of philosophical theses before a collection of the most learned men in Bologna, invited by her father. Records of this can be found in Charles de Brosses’ Lettres sur l’Italie. Propositiones Philosophicae, published 1738, gives her father’s account of the final meeting where she defended 190 theses.

She was strongly religious and wanted to enter a convent, but her father refused. She studied differential and integral calculus under Ramiro Rampinelli, who first began teaching her in 1740

She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook, which was the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus, the second woman appointed as a professor (in the Western World), and the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university, although she never served. 

According to Britannica, she is “considered to be the first woman in the Western world to have achieved a reputation in mathematics”. Her biggest contribution to mathematics was the book Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana which discussed differential and integral calculus. In it, the curve “The Witch of Agnesi”, which had also previously been studied by Fermat, Grandi, and Newton. The curve actually got its name due to a mistranslation. According to historians, Agnesi named it versiera from the Latin vertere, meaning to turn. However, can also be translated as an abbreviation of Italian avversiera, meaning female devil. When first translated in to English, the wrong word was chosen and the error stuck!

Named after her is a crater on Venus, a Family Coppola brandy (released 2017), and the 16765 Agnesi asteroid (named in 1996).

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