"Agnesi is the first important woman mathematician since Hypatia."
-- Dirk Jan Struik
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (16 May 1718 – 9 January 1799) was an Italian mathematician and philosopher. She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a Mathematics Professor at a University.
She is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna.
She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to charitable work and serving the poor. This extended to helping the sick by allowing them entrance into her home where she set up a hospital. She was a devout Christian and wrote extensively on the marriage between intellectual pursuit and mystical contemplation, most notably in her essay Il cielo mistico (The Mystic Heaven). She saw the rational contemplation of God as a complement to prayer and contemplation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, clavicembalist and composer, was her sister.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan, to a wealthy and literate family. Her father Pietro Agnesi, a University of Bologna mathematics professor, wanted to elevate his family into the Milanese nobility. In order to achieve his goal, he had married Anna Fortunata Brivio in 1717. Her mother's death provided her the excuse to retire from public life. She took over management of the household.
Maria was recognized early on as a child prodigy; she could speak both Italian and French at five years of age. By her eleventh birthday, she had also learned Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin, and was referred to as the "Seven-Tongued Orator". She even educated her younger brothers. When she was nine years old, she composed and delivered an hour-long speech in Latin to some of the most distinguished intellectuals of the day. The subject was women's right to be educated.
Agnesi suffered a mysterious illness at the age of 12 that was attributed to her excessive studying and was prescribed vigorous dancing and horseback riding. This treatment did not work - she began to experience extreme convulsions, after which she was encouraged to pursue moderation. By age fourteen, she was studying ballistics and geometry. When she was fifteen, her father began to regularly gather in his house a circle of the most learned men in Bologna, before whom she read and maintained a series of theses on the most abstruse philosophical questions. Records of these meetings are given in Charles de Brosses' Lettres sur l'Italie and in the Propositiones Philosophicae, which her father had published in 1738 as an account of her final performance, where she defended 190 theses. Maria was very shy in nature and did not like these meetings.
Her father remarried twice after Maria's mother died, and Maria Agnesi ended up the eldest of 21 children, including her half-siblings. In addition to her performances and lessons, her responsibility was to teach her siblings. This task kept her from her own goal of entering a convent, as she had become strongly religious. Although her father refused to grant this wish, he agreed to let her live from that time on in an almost conventual semi-retirement, avoiding all interactions with society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics. During that time, Maria studied both differential and integral calculus. Fellow philosophers thought she was extremely beautiful, and her family was recognized as one of the wealthiest in Milan. Maria became a professor at the University of Bologna.