Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Born in Milan, Italy to a wealthy family, Maria Gaetana Agnesi was a child prodigy, speaking seven languages by her eleventh birthday. Her father, a mathematics professor at the University of Bologna, began to gather groups of the most important men in the city to watch her present a series of 190 theses on philosophical questions. Being a very shy fifteen year old she hated these performances. Longing to enter a convent due to her strong religious beliefs, instead she was allowed to stop these public shows and focus solely on her study of mathematics.
Published in 1748 Agnesi’s Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth was written with the purpose of giving systematic illustration of the different results and theorems of infinitesimal calculus. It was in this treatise that she wrote about a curve that had previously been studied but it became known as the Witch of Agnesi. This construction is useful for theoretical purposes but also has real world applications only recently discovered. The equation of the curve approximates the spectral line distribution of optical lines and x-rays, as well as the amount of power dissipated in resonant circuits and has been used as the generic topographic obstacle in a flow in mathematical modeling.
Two years later, when her father became ill, she was appointed by the Pope as the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna but history did not record if she accepted the position simply in title alone or actual practice, but it is thought she did not serve in this appointment. In 1752 her father passed away and she was able to give up on mathematics as she had long desired and devoted her life to the study of theology and service to the poor, homeless, and sick. She gave away the many gifts she had been given during her time as a celebrated mathematician and in 1783 founded the Opera Pia Trivulzio, a home for Milan’s elderly where she was the director but lived in the same style as the nuns of the institution.
Written by Angela Goad