Maria Gaetana Agnesi: a Brief Discussion of Her Contribution to the Study of Mathematics

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In the Middle Ages, higher education for women was frowned upon by many European countries and women were basically deprived of even the basic fundamentals – reading, and writing – arithmetic was out of the question. The only acceptable forum for educating women was nunneries, or convents. However, in Italy, where the Renaissance originated, women of knowledge were admired by men and were encouraged to expand their minds. This unusual attitude enabled Italian women to participate in the expansion and exploration of the arts, sciences, medicine, literature and mathematics (Unlu, 1995). One such lucky girl child was Maria Gaetana Agnesi, born of educated, wealthy parents in what is now modern day Milan, on May 16, 1718. The following will provide a basic biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi and her contribution to the world in mathematics which included authoring several books; she wrote the first mathematics book by a woman that still survives today and she was the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at any university (Women's History, no date). The importance of her contributions to mathematics will be briefly discussed in the conclusion. Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born to Pietro Agnesi and his first wife. She was the eldest of 21 children born to Pietro and his three wives. Her father was a wealthy silk trader and a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna. Unlike most female children that were educated in convents, Maria was recognized by her father to be brilliant; thus, he did not send her away but instead provided very high quality tutors that nurtured her remarkable talents in language and mathematics. At the age of 9, Maria published a Latin discourse applauding higher education for women (O'Connor and Robertson, no date). She was recognized as a prodigy by the age of five - she spoke fluent French; by the age of nine she had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German and Spanish (O'Connor and Robertson). In her teen years,...
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