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  • 1/10/2005

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Italian scientist

(May 16, 1718 - January 9, 1799)


Agnesi was born inItaly in 1718 to a wealthy and literate family. She was the daughter of a mathematician. During this time,Italy was opposed to education for women, as a result even many upper class women could not read. But Agnesi was an exception. She was to grow up to be called one of the most extraordinary women scholars of all times. She is considered to be the first woman in the Western world who can accurately be called a mathematician (Gillispie 1970).

Agnesi never married. She spent most of her time studying mathematics. However after her mothers death most of her time was spent caring for her younger brothers and sisters, and performing household duties (Perl 1978).


Osen (1990) states that by the age of twenty and after 10 years of thought, Agnesi had produced her major work calledAnalytical Institutions, a treatise in two huge volumes dealing with differential and integral calculus, with an emphasis on concepts that were new in her time. After her work was published, in 1748, it created a great deal of excitement in the academic world. It was considered to be one of the most important mathematical publications produced by a woman up until that time. It gave her instant recognition in the academic circles ofEurope.

In the first sectionAnalytical Institutions deals with the analysis of finite quantities. It also deals with elementary problems of maxima and minima, tangents, and points of inflection. The next section discusses the analysis of infinitely small quantities. The third section deals with integral calculus, with specific rules for integration and finally the last section deals with the inverse method of tangents and differential equations (Gillispie 1970).

Agnesi is however most famous for her work on the cubic curve whose equation is

x^2y = a^2(a-y)

which later became known as the Curve of Agnesi. Agnesi presented an algebraic method for finding the curve's point of inflection, by using the method of derivatives (Osen 1990 and Kennedy 1987).

Although she made no claim to original mathematical discoveries, Agnesi played the important role of bringing together in a systematic way the works of various mathematicians of the mid eighteenth century, including Newton and Leibniz. She also made several extensions to the material in an attempt to put into order the discoveries. She succeeded so well that her books became a model for clarity and were widely translated to be used for many years as a textbook. Lagrange listed it among the books he thoroughly studied (Osen 1990 and Perl 1978).

Maria withdrew from all scientific activity after her father's death, to devote the rest of her life to caring for the poor and homeless. Had Maria not left mathematics at such an early age, she might have ranked among the world's greatest mathematicians (Osen 1990).

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