Maria Gaetana Agnesi (16 May 1718 – 09 Jan 1799) was born in Milan to a wealthy and literate family. Her father, Pietro Agnesi, was a wealthy silk merchant. She was recognised early on as a child prodigy; at the age of five she could speak both Italian and French and by her eleventh birthday was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German and Latin. As a result of overworking herself, she grew ill and weak at the age of twelve from a mysterious illness attributed to her excessive studying and reading. She was prescribed vigorous dancing and horse riding, but this did not work and resulted in her experiencing extreme convulsions. From then on, she was encouraged to pursue it in moderation.
By age fourteen she was studying ballistics and geometry. At the age of fifteen she would directly contradict some of the most learned men in Bologna. After a few years, Maria had become deeply religious – her goal was to be part of a convent. However, her father would not allow this but agreed to let her in an almost conventual semi-retirement, avoiding all interactions of society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics. By now, the Agnesi family was one of the wealthiest in Bologna. In 1740 she was fully introduced into the field by Ramiro Rampinelli, an Olivetan monk who was one of the most notable Italian mathematicians of that time.
According to Britannica, Maria Agnesi is ‘considered to be the first woman in the Western world to have achieved a reputation in mathematics’. The most valuable result of her work was the Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth, which was published in Milan in 1748 and ‘was regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler’. The goal of the work was to give a systematic illustration of the different results and theorems of infinitesimal calculus.
In 1750, upon the illness of her father, she was appointed as chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics in Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV, even though she never served. She was the second woman ever to be granted professorship at a university (Laura Bassi, also Italian, was the first). In 1751 she became ill again and was told not to study by her doctors. After the death of her father in 1752 she dedicated herself to the study of theology, and devoted herself to the poor, homeless and sick, giving away her gifts and possessions as part of the nobility and begging for money to continue her work with the poor. In 1783 she founded and became the director of the Opera Pia Trivulzio, a home for Milan’s elderly, where she lived as the nuns of the institution did. On 9 January, 1799, Maria Agnesi died and was buried in a mass grave for the poor with fifteen other bodies.
Maria Agnesi’s legacy still carries on today. Her work is still studied and admired and in 1996 the asteroid 16765 Agnesi, was named after her. There is also a crater on Venus named Agnesi after her, as well as a mathematical curve named the Witch of Agnesi. I think of her as a powerful woman who helped others while tirelessly pioneering new ideas in extremely male-dominant and difficult fields. She is not recognised as much as she deserves, so I thought it was essential to write about her for International Women’s Day and Science Week.