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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week - Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Posted February 20, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Woman of the Week - Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an Italian mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian in the 1700s.

She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university.

She is also credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was a member of the faculty at the University of Bologna, although she never served.

She was born in Milan, to a wealthy and literate family. Her father Pietro Agnesi, a University of Bologna mathematics professor, wanted his family to rise up in the nobility. In order to achieve his goal, he had married Maria’s mother Anna Fortunata Brivio in 1717. In 1732, her mother passed away. Agnesi took over management of the household. Her father remarried twice and had many more children. In total, she was one of 21 children.

She was recognized early on as a child prodigy; she could speak both Italian and French at five years of age. By her eleventh birthday, she had also learned Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin, and was referred to as the "Seven-Tongued Orator.” She even educated her younger brothers. 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.

Agnesi suffered a mysterious illness at the age of 12 that was attributed to her excessive studying. She was prescribed vigorous dancing and horseback riding. This treatment did not work; she began to experience extreme convulsions, after which she was encouraged to pursue the exercise in moderation. By the time she was fifteen, her father began to regularly gather in his house a circle of the most learned men in Bologna, before whom she read and maintained a series of theses on philosophy. Her father had published in 1738 as an account of her final performance, where she defended 190 theses. Though she was successful, she did not like these meetings, as she was very shy in nature.

By twenty, she began working on her most important work, Analytical Institutions, dealing with differential and integral calculus. When published in 1748, it caused a sensation in the academic world. It was one of the first and most complete works on finite and infinitesimal analysis. The book became a model of clarity. It was often used as an academic text.

She is best known from the curve called the "Witch of Agnesi.” It is a versed sine curve, originally studied by Fermat. It was called a versiera, a word derived from the Latin vertere, meaning 'to turn', but it was also an abbreviation for the Italian word avversiera, meaning 'the wife of the devil.’ When her text was translated into English the word versiera was confused with "witch,” and the curve came to be known as the witch of Agnesi.

She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to charitable work and serving the poor. This extended to helping the sick by allowing them entrance into her home where she set up a hospital.

Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maria_Gaetana_Agnesi

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Maria-Gaetana-Agnesi

http://www.math.wichita.edu/history/women/agnesi.html


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Re: Woman of the Week - Maria Gaetana Agnesi

02/22/2017 1:59 PM

So smart at knowing how to use her smarts for the good of the world toward the advancement of culture and society = ) Thank you for sharing about this amazing, organized human being! WoW! = )

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