Maria Agnesi Is the Greatest Mathematician You've Probably Never Heard Of

Most people could only name a few of math's greats, but even the most mathematically minded probably miss out on Maria Agnesi. Allow us to introduce you to the 18th-century genius who changed the life of anyone who's ever picked up a math textbook.

Smarty Pants

Born Maria Gaetana Agnesi on May 16, 1718 in Milan, Italy, Maria quickly proved herself to be a child prodigy. By age six, she was fluent in both Italian and French, adding Latin, German, Greek, Hebrew, and Spanish to her skillset by the time she turned 11. Noticing the incredible intelligence of his eldest kid, Agnesi's father, Pietro, would invite over his friends just to have little Maria put her smarts on display. They didn't call her the "seven-tongued orator" for nothin'.

After her father's second wife died, Maria absorbed the household duties in her place. Who else was going to help care for her father's 20-some-odd children?! Despite basically being Mom #2, Maria kept learning as a priority while educating her huge pack of siblings. As a nine-year-old, Maria recited an hour-long speech in Latin from memory. The topic of the speech? The right of women to obtain an education: a message near and dear to her heart.

By age 14, Maria was on her way to math greatness. When most preteens were just getting introduced to algebra, she was already well-versed in geometry and ballistics. For her final performance — those little intelligence pageants she would put on for her father's circle at the house — Maria defended 190 theses, which were published by her father in 1738.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like This, Maria?

It was in 1748 when Maria really changed the game for mathematics. She became the first woman to write a mathematics textbook with two volumes, entitled the "Basic Principles of Analysis." While most of the math texts of the time were written in Latin, thanks to Newton and Euler setting that standard, Maria composed her text in Italian in an effort to make it more accessible to everyone. It also made things a little easier for her contemporary scholars who translated this book further for Paris and Cambridge university classrooms. This book, too, was one of the first textbooks for calculus, a relatively new field of math at the time — and not an easy one at that. In 1749, Maria's textbook was praised by the French Academy: "It took much skill and sagacity to reduce to almost uniform methods discoveries scattered among the works of many mathematicians very different from each other. Order, clarity, and precision reign in all parts of this work. ... We regard it as the most complete and best-made treatise."

Beyond her textbook contributions, Maria became the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university, by Pope Benedict XIV no less. Despite that sweet, sweet prestige, Maria turned down the offer to pursue her other true passion: advocating for the education of women and the poor. Though born a wealthy woman, she eventually gave it all up to found a small hospital in her home and dedicate her life to service and religion.

"Man always acts to achieve goals; the goal of the Christian is the glory of God," she wrote. "I hope my studies have brought glory to God, as they were useful to others, and derived from obedience, because that was my father's will. Now I have found better ways and means to serve God, and to be useful to others."

Want more Maria? Check out "The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God" by Massimo Mazzotti. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto June 15, 2018

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