Émilie du Châtelet – “Femme Savant” and Paramour

Émilie du Châtelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour

Émilie du Châtelet by Maurice Quentin de La Tour (source)

Depending on where you have heard of Émilie du Châtelet you know her as a mathematician and scientist, or the paramour of Voltaire. She was both, a complex woman stimulated by intelligent conversation and study, but also a coquette. On the one hand very unusual for a woman of the 18th century, on the other a product of her time.

Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil led a privileged life.  Her father was an official in the court of Louis XIV at Versailles.  At the time of Émilie’s birth, he held the position of Introducer of Ambassadors at court.  This put him in the midst of all of the important social happenings of the time in France. Her mother Gabrielle Anne de Froulay was brought up in a convent and well educated for a woman of that time.  The family owned a home in Paris and an estate in Touraine.

Émilie was born on December 17, 1706, the only girl of six children. Three of her brothers survived to adulthood, although only one lived to an old age becoming an abbé and later a bishop. As with many women of the time, Émilie was educated because her father recognized her genius and promoted it by providing tutors for her. Although Émilie’s mother was educated in the convent, there is some evidence that she resisted the rigorous education that her husband gave Émilie. In spite of this, tutors were brought to the house to teach her astronomy, mathematics, and physics. She became fluent in German, Italian, Latin, Greek, and as an adult, published translations of literary as well as scientific works into French. In spite of her recognized brilliance, her education wasn’t strictly academic. She received training in fencing, riding, the harpsichord and opera. However, her preference in study was for mathematics and philosophy, certainly unusual for a woman of the 18th century. In a somewhat scandalous application of her abilities, she used her knowledge of mathematics as a teenager to prosper as a gambler. The proceeds were, of course, used to buy the science and mathematics texts she wanted.

All young aristocratic women of the time were expected to make a good marriage and Émilie was no exception. A marriage was arranged and in 1725, she married Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. She became the Marquise du Chastellet. (The spelling Châtelet was introduced later by Voltaire.) Émilie was nineteen and Claude was in his early thirties. The marriage doesn’t seem to have been a very passionate affair. It would survive infidelities on both sides. They did, however, have three children: Françoise Gabriel Pauline (1726), Louis Marie Florent (1727), and Victor-Esprit (1733) although Victor died in 1734.

Claude was a military man, this kept him away from home quite a bit and by the time Émilie had her third child, she was bored. Tired of being away from society and ready to resume her active life and her studies, she reemerged on her own terms. Although Émilie didn’t actively resist convention, she was determined to live her life as she saw fit. She lived life enthusiastically and with boldness. Unfortunately, this approach had its consequences and she became the focus of a fair amount of malicious gossip. Lynn Osen, in her book Women in Mathematics, states that Émilie committed two unforgivable sins: “She refused to give up her serious study of mathematics” and “she stole the heart of Voltaire.”

In eighteenth century French society, as in many other times, the issue that concerned people in their gossip was not whether or not a woman had affairs, but was she discreet. There are three names that are associated with Émilie ’s love life. Although Émilie  knew these unwritten rules, at the end of her first affair she broke them in a very indiscreet way. There are a couple of different versions of how it came about, but the result is the same, she attempted suicide. Whether this was an attempt at emotional blackmail or just evidence of her passionate nature, it was thwarted by her lover when he discovered her and got her immediate medical attention.

Voltaire c. 1724, by Nicolas de Largillière

Voltaire c. 1724, by Nicolas de Largillière (source)

Émilie ’s second affair, and a friendship that would last until her death, was with Voltaire. She may have met him when she was young, but her adult friendship began with him in 1733 after the birth of her third child. Even though intellectual women were the butt of many jokes during that time not only in society, but also in literature and the theater (“femme savant” was not a compliment), intellectual men often still sought out these women as their companions. Émilie  and Voltaire were companions in every sense. Over the next 15 – 16 years before Émilie ’s death in 1749, they would rarely be separated and would challenge each other to produce work that has stood the test of time.

Voltaire was often in trouble with the powers that be and was exiled to Britain at one point. When his exile seemed imminent again, Émilie  suggested that they go to one of her husband’s country estates at Cirey. Claude seems to have liked Voltaire and if not welcoming of his wife’s affair at least accepting of it. Émilie  and Voltaire set up a laboratory, accumulated a library and did substantive work during their time here. Émilie  came into her own in mathematics and science and began to make a name for herself.

You could think of them as collaborators of a sort, but although they had many interests in common, their strengths were different. One early example of how they did collaborate was when Voltaire entered a contest for an essay on the scientific properties of heat and light. Émilie  worked with him on his experiments and ideas, but at some point she disagreed with his conclusions and decided to enter the contest herself. Neither won, but both were recognized for their work by having it published. The prize was jointly awarded to three men one of whom was Euler. (That will give some of you an idea of the competition they were up against.)

Although, Émilie  translated literary works and wrote a Biblical commentary on Genesis and one on the New Testament, there are two major works for which Émilie  du Châtelet  is best known. One is Institution de physique, “Lessons in Physics.” Originally intended as a text for her son, it was her assessment of the latest ideas in science and mathematics. In it she attempted to reconcile and explain the works of the major thinkers of her time, such people as Newton, Leibniz, etc. These were concepts that few people could really grasp at the time.

Émilie ’s most outstanding achievement is her translation of Newton’s Principia Mathematica into French with commentary.  It was a complete translation of all three books with a commentary that summarized and explained Newton’s theories. She also applied the new mathematics of calculus to his ideas. This was the only complete translation of Newton’s work into French and remains the standard today. Émilie  worked on this up to the time of her death and Voltaire ensured its publication ten years later.

Jean François de Saint-Lambert

Jean François de Saint-Lambert, artist unknown (source)

The third name associated with Émilie ’s love life is the poet Jean François de Saint-Lambert. In the winter of 1747 – 1748, Émilie  traveled with Voltaire to Lunéville, the home of the duke of Lorraine. Here she met and fell in love with Saint-Lambert who was ten years her junior. She also became pregnant. Although Voltaire may have been hurt, it is also possible that by that time their relationship had settled into one of companionship rather than lovers. In either case, he remained by her side and with Saint-Lambert returned to Cirey. I’ve read a couple of theories about what happened next. One is that the three of them conspired to get her husband back to Cirey to convince him that the child was his. The other which seems more likely to me is that he cooperated and returned to spend time there in order to give the child legitimacy. In either case, they were all three with her when the child, a daughter, was born in September of 1749. Although, the delivery seemed to go well, Émilie  died a week later on September 10, 1749 of a pulmonary embolism.

Some people may have viewed Émilie primarily as Voltaire’s muse, but she was much more. She was a brilliant, sometimes contradictory, woman who chose as much as possible to live life on her own terms.

Women in Mathematics
, Lynn Osen, 1974.
An Eighteenth Century Marquise
, Frank Hamel, 1910.

Read about other Famous Women in Math and Science.

Sonya Kovalevsky – A Marriage of Convenience

Sonya Kovalevsky in 1880, photographer unknown (source)

Sonya Kovalevsky in 1880, photographer unknown (source)

“Ask him to marry one of us?  You’re crazy,” said Inez.

“It’s the perfect solution”, replied Sonya’s sister Anna.  “A lot of people are doing it.  Women can’t study in Russia.  At least the aristocracy can’t. It’s considered improper,” as she rolled her eyes.  “But married women can travel.”


“Don’t you see? If one of us gets married, we can both travel to a foreign university to study.  When we get there he can go his own way.  Strictly a marriage of convenience!”

So the conversation might have gone, in the winter of 1867 in St. Petersburg, Russia.  Anna Krukovsky, her sister Sonya, and their friend Inez wanted to be a part of the new revolution among Russia’s young people.  They wanted to see freedom, progress, and a rise in the standard of education for women in their country.  In the 1860s and 70s, quite a few young Russian women among the aristocracy were leaving their parents homes to study.  They did this by marrying young men of like mind, going abroad to study, and then going their separate ways.

Sonya, born January 15, 1850 in Russia (new style date), was the daughter of Vasily Korvin-Krukovsky and Yelizaveta Shubert both well educated members of the Russian aristocracy.  But, they, like most of us, were products of their own time. This dictated that girls were educated in the home and only in certain subjects. Sonya was raised, primarily, by a nursery maids and governesses.  The first governess that she recalls in her fictionalized autobiography of her childhood, The Sister’s Rajevsky, was the “abominable French woman.” This woman was sent away when it was discovered that Anna could barely read.  She was replaced by a Russian woman who had been living in England and had completely absorbed the English way of life. She brought a much needed discipline into the household.  Under this new governess, Sonya discovered her affinity for science and mathematics.  Her uncle, Pyotr Vasilievich Krukovsky , spoke about mathematics and it is said that the walls of her bedroom were papered with pages from a book on differential and integral calculus. Even though she didn’t have the background to understand it at the time, mathematics captured Sonya’s imagination. What she learned, however, was strictly controlled in the household.  It had to be “proper” for a young woman.

Anna Jaclard, Sonya's sister, before 1887, artist unknown (source)

Anna Jaclard, Sonya’s sister, before 1887, artist unknown (source)

Anna had a flair for literature and had defied the conventions by sending a couple of her stories to St. Petersburg to the attention of Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  They had been published and she had been paid.  Unfortunately, her father was the first to go through the post on the day her payment arrived, addressed to the housekeeper.  He insisted that the housekeeper open it in front of him and explain.  Anna was caught.  Her father felt betrayed and humiliated, and for a time refused to speak to Anna.

The girls began to work on their mother and eventually were able to convince their parents to hear one of the stories.  This resulted in a slight relaxing of restrictions.  Anna was allowed to correspond with Dostoyevsky, and they were allowed to order books on various topics.  Due to the influence of one of her father’s friends, a tutor was retained to teach Sonya science and mathematics, although, her father still considered it to be an “unusual and unfeminine” area of study.  Sonya flourished, but soon reached the extent of what her tutor could teach her. When Sonya began to hint at her desire to go abroad to study her father drew the line and refused to even consider it.

It was after this, during a winter in St. Petersburg, that the girls began their plotting.  The girls first approached a young man of the aristocracy with their proposal.  He was a young professor at the university and surely would understand.  He politely refused, but was sympathetic to their cause and didn’t expose them.  This rejection didn’t stifle the girls’ enthusiasm for the idea.  There don’t seem to be any romantic ideals attached to the idea. In their minds the proposal was strictly a matter of practicality and therefore the girls didn’t take the rejection personally.

While in their village Palibino, they had made the acquaintance of a young student.  The son of the vicar, Vladimir Kovalevsky was a serious young man who studied archeology and geology at the university and wanted to continue his studies in Germany. He had a disagreement with his father over a number of things, including his involvement with the young people in the new movement in St. Petersburg.  Because of this, he had moved out of his home, and into a small rented room in the city.  In discussing their circle of friends, they decided that Vladimir might be a likely candidate for their plan.

There were many opportunities for the young people to socialize under supervision, so the girls were able to get to know Vladimir.  They decided that he would be perfect for their marriage scheme.  The three of them approached him at a casual gathering in a friend’s house.  To their surprise, he agreed, with one change in the plan.  He wanted to marry Sonya.

Although Sonya had often felt unloved, all indications are that the Krukovsky parents loved their children though they may have been somewhat removed. They had been persuaded to allow Anna to write for publication and Sonya to study “unfeminine” subjects, but they were in many ways very conventional. Vladimir was young, but of good birth with a promising career ahead of him, so he would probably have been accepted as a match for Anna. She was 23 at the time, an age where she was a little old to be unmarried. However, Sonya was only 17 and of course the expectation was that the older daughter should be married first. Their father flatly refused to consider the match.

The girls were so determined that Sonya decided to force her father’s hand. One evening when the household was busy preparing for a dinner party and both of the girl’s parents had gone out in the afternoon, Sonya dressed for dinner and slipped out of the house without being seen.  She went to Vladimir’s room where he was waiting for her.  They waited anxiously for footsteps in the hallway, knowing it wouldn’t take long.  Sonya had left a note for her parents.  She asked them to forgive her, but to understand that this was what she wanted.  She knew that it would be humiliating for them, and that being found alone with Vladimir would require their marriage.

At home, Sonya’s parents had arrived late as expected.  When the guests had assembled and the table was set, they noticed that Sonya was missing.  Anna told them that she had gone out, and there was a note on her dressing table.  After reading the note, their father said nothing, but left the house.  When he returned he introduced Sonya’s fiancé to the guests.

The marriage proceeded as planned.  The young couple lived in St. Petersburg for six months until Vladimir finished his studies, then moved on to Heidelberg, Germany.  Here Sonya was able to study with celebrated mathematicians and scientists of the day.  Anna and Inez both eventually joined them.  They were able to travel and meet many well-known people, authors as well as scientists.

In her biography of Sonya, Anna Carlotta Leffler describes Sonya as a person who demanded a lot from her close friends and acquaintances. She tended to be jealous of other people and the things in their lives, even of her husband’s work. She says of Sonya that “Her own individuality was far too pronounced to allow her to live in harmony with others.” Sonya threw herself wholeheartedly into new activities such as dancing and horseback riding and gave this same devotion to writing literature and her study of mathematics. This devotion allowed her to become the first woman to be a member of the Russian Academy of Science and the first European woman to become a full professor at a university. This appointment was privately funded at the University of Sweden in 1884.

Although it began as a marriage of convenience with separate living arrangements, Sonya and Vladimir developed a close relationship.  They would often walk and talk all day.  Eventually, Anna moved to Paris and Inez moved on, leaving the couple alone.  They shared great intelligence and devotion to their work.  Later, they shared great devotion to their daughter, Foufi.  Unfortunately, their life together was short.  Vladimir died, Foufi was left with friends in St. Petersburg, and Sonya was alone.  She would spend most of the rest of her life this way.  To her friends, she seemed to always be searching for something.  Perhaps for the acceptance and love that she didn’t feel as a child, and didn’t find in a marriage of convenience.

Sonya Kovalevsky; a biography, and Sisters Rajevsky; being an account of her life by Sonya Kovalevsky by Anna Carlotta Leffler
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Notable Women in Mathematics edited by Charlene Morrow and Teri Perl

Hypatia – A Martyr for the Truth

This was inspired by the life of Hypatia, who lived in the 4th and 5th centuries C.E.  She was a real person and brilliant mathematician.  Often she is the only woman mathematician mentioned in books on the history of math.  The character writing is fictitious, but the events are true.

 A Day in Alexandria

 I arrived in Alexandria as the sun was going down.  The trip from Cyrene had been a rough one and I was glad to have my feet on solid ground again.  My teacher and mentor, Synesius, had corresponded with her for years.  He raved about her brilliance, her inventions, her ability to teach others, and her original mathematical work.  Hypatia!  Finally, I would hear for myself.  Little did I know what horrors I would witness and how the world would change from this year on.

This was my first trip to the great city of Alexandria.  I planned to be here for a while to take advantage of the magnificent library (at least what was left of it) and many great teachers.  I would eventually find a place to stay, but for now, I had a letter of introduction to a friend of my mentor.  He very kindly invited me into his home and gave me a meal and place to sleep for the night.  The political climate is very tense these days.  It is the year 415 (A.D.) and the Christians are gaining strength in many places.  They have very little tolerance for beliefs different from theirs.  Cyril, the church patriarch, considers anyone of the neo-Platonic school of thought to be a heretic.  But, there are still many of us who are members of this school, including Hypatia.

As we sat down to a simple meal, or rather reclined in the Greek fashion, my host began to tell me a little more about the city and Hypatia.

“You know her!”, I cried.

“Actually, I’m a friend of the family. More her father’s friend.” He replied.

“Please tell me. Are all the stories I hear of her true?”

He laughed, “Actually, many of them are, but what in particular are you interested in knowing?”

“They say she inspires great devotion in her students and anyone interested in learning.”

“She does.  She’s a magnificent orator, devoted to teaching, and to the truth.  I make sure that I hear her often and read most of what she writes.  She has done quite a bit of original work in mathematics, written commentaries and built on the works of some of the greats – Diophantes, Apollonius, among others.  ”

“And she is a scientist as well,” I added.  “My mentor, Synesius, has been particularly interested in her inventions, such as the astrolabe and the planesphere for studying astronomy.”

“I know nothing of that field, but am told that she has a number of inventions that have added to it.  I am more familiar with her writings in mathematics, although, she is very learned in many fields.  Her father, Theon, my friend, was determined to produce the ‘perfect human being’ as he says.  Many think that he has.  Of course, he is a professor of mathematics at the university as well, so he had access to many resources and took charge of her education.  I’m sure she picked up the love of mathematical elegance from him, but he didn’t stop there.  She learned it all – astronomy, astrology, mathematics, religion.  And he didn’t neglect the body.  She is accomplished at rowing, swimming, horseback riding .  And yes, she is very beautiful as well, even now in her mid 40s.  She has also traveled extensively and basically made a name for herself.”

“Did you say she studied religion?”

“Yes, as in ALL religions, rather than one.  Theon was particularly concerned that she NOT be caught up in any one religion to the exclusion of new truths.  He feels that all dogmatic religions are false.  If we can’t be open to new ideas, we have cut ourselves off from the truth.  Hypatia has been raised to be very discriminating in her thoughts and acceptance of new ideas.  As Theon frequently says, ‘Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.’ . . . It hasn’t made it easy for her in the current climate.  She is a close personal friend of Orestes, the prefect.  I think that is one reason that her popularity is tolerated.  But, ever since 412, when Cyril became patriarch, things have become more and more tense.  Sometimes I fear for her and others who are seen as champions of other ways of thought.”

“She must be an amazing person.  Is she married?”

“She is very beautiful, but no, she has never married.  She has had opportunities, but always says that she ‘is married to the truth.’  But, I think you’re a little young for her,” he teased.

I was embarrassed, but still had to ask.  “Do you think I could meet her?”

“Hmm . . . I think she has a gathering at her home tomorrow night.  Her students often gather there and anyone is welcome.  Right now though, it is getting late, and her lecture is the first of the day tomorrow.  I had planned to go with you, but won’t be able to if I can’t get any sleep.”

I was the one who had trouble sleeping that night because of my excitement.  I was up with the sun and after a brief meal, we set out toward the university.  It was a beautiful day as we walked along the bay.  The sun was bright and the colors were vivid.  It was a perfect complement to what I felt inside.  We followed the coast for just a short period before we turned to go up to the main thoroughfare that led to the University of Alexandria.  As we approached, it became noisier and more crowded as I expected.  When we got closer, however, it seemed to be more of a mob than the usual crowds of a city.

“What is happening?” I asked my new friend.

“I’m not sure.  This is unusual.  I have friends who live here.  Let’s go in and see if we can go up to the roof to get a better view.”

We were allowed entrance by one of the slaves who recognized my host and told us that the master was already on the roof observing.  As we joined him, I could see that the street was crowded by an angry mob.  In the center of the mob was a woman in her chariot.  The crowd had brought the horse to a stop and was attacking the woman, hitting her, grabbing her hair, and throwing stones.  I could already see where a clump of her hair had been pulled out.  She was fighting back, but it was useless against so many.  Someone yelled above the crowd, “to the church, to the altar.”  At that point, strong hands grasped the woman and she was carried into the nearby Christian church.

“The poor woman, what can we do?  Do you know who she is?”

“That,” whispered my host, “is Hypatia. . .  I doubt we can do anything against that mob to help her, but we can try.  I know a back way into the church.”

As we raced to the door, fear seized my heart for this woman I had never met, but heard so much about.  The mob of people, mostly men, were obvious as Christians by the way that they dressed.  I understood that they didn’t favor her teachings, but this anger seemed extreme.

We were unable to get through the door until it was too late.  When we did, the extent of their depravity was overwhelming.  The mob, whom I later learned was a group of monks from a monastery in the desert, had stripped her and peeled away her skin with bits of tile and pottery.  Her limbs had been torn from her body.  Her voice was silenced.

I couldn’t stay in Alexandria after that.  It wasn’t really safe for a non-Christian foreigner, and besides, I didn’t have the heart for it.  I heard rumors later about what had happened.  Some said that Hypatia’s limbs were put on display in different parts of the city; some said her body was burned.  Orestes fled and Cyril finally had what he wanted – power.  I went to Athens to continue study, but everywhere things were changing.

Note:  Although partially destroyed in 391 C. E. the library in Alexandria would be completely destroyed a few years after Hypatia’s death and the western world would be plunged into a period that has come to be known as the dark ages.

Carl Sagan speaks about Alexandria and Hypatia:


Hubbard, Elbert. Little journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers. Vol.23. New York. The Roycrofters. 1808.

Mlodinow, Leonard. Euclid’s Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace. New York. Simon and Schuster. 2001.

Osen, Lynn. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, Massachusetts. The MIT Press. 1974.

Women gaining in STEM

I intended this to be a blog about women in history, as in not currently living, but I’ve already added a book review about a women currently fighting for human rights in Afghanistan and I can’t resist posting the link below about the gains women are making in STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

I studied math in college, both undergraduate (in the 70s) and graduate (in the mid 80s.) I remember how few women were in my classes. As a freshman and sophomore there were more, but as those who planned to teach moved on to education classes, there were fewer of us in the more technical classes.  (I never really planned to teach high school math, it ended up being a fall back job for me about 20 years later.)  When I got to graduate school I studied Applied Math which basically means I was in class with a lot of future engineers. It wasn’t unusual to be one of 4 or 5 women in a class full of men. Oddly enough, we didn’t usually hang out and study together. I guess we just worked on our “boy social dynamics” as Rebecca Allred says in the article. I feel very fortunate that I didn’t really run into any problems. I always had a few classmates to study with which was all I wanted.

Women have made great strides in fields that have traditionally belonged to men.  I never really felt as though I had something to prove in those days, but I know many women did.  From reading this article it seems as though maybe we really are moving into a time when women can just study and do what they like and are good at without thinking twice about whether it is a man’s field or not. Which is as it should be. Check out the article here.

Women making slow, sure strides in science, math

Maria Gaetana Agnesi – 18th century mathematician

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist unknown (source)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist unknown (source)

“How long will I have to do this?” must have been the thought that frequently ran through the mind of Maria Agnesi as she stood in her parlor on Friday nights.  Maria Gaetana Agnesi was the oldest of 21 children born into the family of Pietro Angesi.  The Agnesi family was a well to do family in Milan, Italy in the 18th century.  Pietro came from a merchant class family who had made their money in cloth goods.  The family owned many properties and had furnished them exquisitely.

Pietro’s grandfather, father, and uncle had built the business into a sort of empire.  For some unknown reason, Pietro was never trusted with the business.  Even when his father died, provision was made in his will that prevented him from making any decisions concerning the business without the approval of his uncle.  However, when his uncle died childless, the responsibility for the business fell entirely onto Pietro’s shoulders.

Pietro was a very ambitious man.  He had almost everything that he could want, materially.  The one thing he didn’t have was a position in the aristocracy.  He tried many things to be recognized as a member of this class which eventually ran up a huge debt.  One of these things was hosting “conversazione” on Friday nights.  There were many such events held around the city for the wealthy to indulge themselves.  Some were for music and dancing, some for gambling, but at the Agnesi household discussions of philosophy were held.  These events served their purpose and attracted many distinguished persons to the Agnesi home such as Monsieur Charles Brosses, president of the parliament of Burgundy and Frederick Christian, heir to the throne of Poland.

One thing Pietro never scrimped on, even when he was accumulating debt, was his children’s education.  He hired the best tutors from around Europe for both the boys and the girls.  This was during a time when women across Europe were rarely educated.  Genius was, however, recognized and Maria Gaetana was that – a child prodigy.  By the age of 11, she could speak, read, and write Italian, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  At the age of 9, she translated a treatise written in Italian into Latin, memorized it, and delivered the oration at one of her father’s “conversations”.  The treatise was on the education of women, arguing that they should be allowed access to “the fine arts and sublime sciences”.

She and her sister were regularly put on display in the salon of their family home.  Here her father entertained many wealthy and noble men.  Maria Gaetana was asked questions by the participants and she would expound on the subject.  She was adept at discussing philosophy as well as the sciences and mathematics.  She was brilliant, and the men who attended were amazed that she could discuss the philosophy of Descartes as easily as celestial mechanics or the theory of gravitation.  Her sister, Maria Teresa, was a composer.  She would play the harpsichord and sing, sometimes accompanied by Maria Gaetana on the viola.

Maria Gaetana (1718 – 1799) was basically shy and reserved person.  She didn’t enjoy being put on display, but was obedient to her father’s wishes.  A devout Catholic, at one point during her teens, she approached him to ask if she could be excused from further events.  She wanted to enter the cloister.  Her father refused to allow this and she continued participating.  Maria Gaetana never married and most of her time was spent teaching the younger children and after her mother (Anna Brivio) died in 1732, managing the household.  What time she could spare, she gave in helping ill and homeless people, primarily women.

First page of "Analitical Institutions", 1748 (source)

First page of “Analytical Institutions”, 1748 (source)

As she got older, one of Maria Gaetana’s responsibilities was to tutor her younger brothers in mathematics.  She had a passion for scholarship including mathematics and had absorbed works by Newton, Fermat, and Descartes among others.  She found all of the texts available to be inadequate for the task of teaching her younger siblings.  For this reason she decided to write her own.  Originally, it was intended to be used only for their lessons but 10 years after she began it, Analytical Institutions was published to wide acclaim.  It was a comprehensive look at mathematical analysis at the time, from algebra through differential and integral calculus, infinite series, and differential equations.  She managed to synthesize work from many of the masters including Newton and Leibnitz to write a text that made these topics accessible to the lay person.

Maria had previously published Propositiones Philosophicae a volume of about 200 essays on various topics presented at her father’s conversations.  But she is primarily known for Analytical Institutions.  It is the earliest surviving math text written by a woman and was translated into English and French for use as a textbook.  She was honored by such people as Pope Benedict XIV with a gold medal and Empress Maria Theresa with jewels.  She was also elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences.  This position included a faculty post.  There is some disagreement as to whether or not she ever taught there.

Whether or not Maria Gaetana taught outside the home, this would have ended when her father died in 1752.  He had left the family in tremendous debt and most of their possessions had to be sold to cover it.  This changed Maria’s lifestyle and set her free to pursue her passion.  Until her death in 1799, Maria Gaetana gave selflessly to others.  She worked with the ill and homeless people of Milan with both her time and what resources she had left.

The "Witch of Agnesi" curve (source)

The “Witch of Agnesi” curve (source)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi is most well known for a curve that she worked with called the “Witch of Agnesi.”  Known for, that is, outside of Italy.  In Italy she is known as a great humanitarian and woman of God.  She was buried in a common grave with 15 other women and her childhood home was destroyed during WWII.  But the city of Milan is proud of their daughter and there are monuments that have been erected to celebrate her life.

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, beneath the arcades of the courtyard of the Palace of Brera at Milan. Photographer: Giovanni Dall'Orto (source)

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, beneath the arcades of the courtyard of the Palace of Brera at Milan. Photographer: Giovanni Dall’Orto (source)

The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God
by Massimo Mazzotti
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists