Maria Agnesi, 1718 – 1799, Milan

Mathematician, Philosopher, Theologian, Humanitarian.

Maria was the firstborn, in a family to have 21 children, and her father Signor Agnesi was a very wealthy silk trader, as well as an academic.

Her mother, Anna Fortunato was born in 1699 and survived just 33 years, which suggests the story of 21 children to be rather apocryphal.


From an early age, Signor Agnesi realized he had a prodigy, a genius, who became fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and as well an avid reader and writer on philosophical topics.


Maria as a young child

Her father would invite his academic friends for an evening and encourage his precocious daughter to engage in philosophical discussion with them, by way of enlivening the evening.

One of her other duties, besides entertainment, was to teach the other children their letters and numbers, while Maria had a private tutor, the best money could buy.

By the time she was in her mid-teens, she was studying the mathematics of projectile tracks, such as cannon balls, and Euclidean geometry. But her earnest desire was to enter a convent. When her father would not allow her to do that she decided to devote herself entirely to mathematics, which she did with the help of two extravagant tutors.


In 1748 she published a two-volume text, “Basic Principles of Analysis”. Volume one was on Algebra and Algebraic Analyses, and volume two was on Differential and Integral Calculus.

These volumes were regarded as the best introduction to the mathematics of Euler, and in recognition of that, they were translated to English by John Colson of Cambridge University.


For many people in Europe at the time, it was almost inconceivable that a woman could have written such a book, they could not believe that a woman's brain could handle complex mathematical constructs or the level of abstraction required.


Nevertheless, the French Academy of Sciences pronounced them as the most complete and best available textbooks.

As a consequence, in 1750 the pope appointed Maria Agnesi as Professor of Mathematics at the University of Bologna, at the tender age of 32.

It would seem Professor Agnesi was not greatly impressed by this honor, because at no stage did she ever visit the university, let alone actually teach there. Instead, she abandoned mathematics entirely and started doing more work in social welfare for the poor, and in the study of theology.


Maria in Later life

In 1751 she became ill, and her doctors told her to stop all her studies, and with the death of her father she devoted more and more of her time to alleviating the suffering of the poor and the sick, and building accommodation for the homeless. After establishing several hospices she moved into one of them, and finally died there, in 1799.

She was buried in a pauper's grave, along with another 15 paupers.


Versiera Curve; looks like a hill or a resonance curve.


In her book, Basic Principles of Analysis, Maria included a discussion on the curve previously studied by Newton and Fermat, which was given the name versiera, in Italian. Subsequently, it was called the witch in Italian, and because that is the meaning of the word in Italian, the curve has become the “witch of Agnesi”.

Click here to honor Maria Agnesi

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