This note accompanies the follow episode(s):
The Writer’s Almanac for May 16, 2017: Excerpt from “The Prelude”

May 16, 2017: birthday: Maria Gaetana Agnesi

It is the birthday of one of the first well-known female mathematicians of the Western world. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (books by this author) was born in Milan (1718). Her father, Pietro, was a wealthy businessman and her mother, Anna Fortunata Brivio, was an aristocrat whom her father married to raise his status in Milan society.

Maria was a brilliant child. By age five, she spoke French as well as her native Italian. A few years later, she was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and her family called her the “Walking Polyglot.” At age nine, she addressed a group of academics in Latin on the subject of women’s rights and access to education, and soon she was leading complex philosophical discussions between her father and his scholarly friends. She also began to pursue mathematics.

Maria was shy and devout, and she longed to give up her public speaking and enter a convent. Her religious aspirations were dashed, however, when her mother died and she was left in charge of the household and the care of her many siblings.

She maintained her interest in math and philosophy. In 1738, she published Propositiones Philosophicae, a collection of essays based on the talks she gave to her father’s circle of friends. That same year, she began working on a math textbook that she could use to teach math to her siblings. But the book grew into more than just a teaching tool. In it she wrote an equation for a specific bell-shaped curve that is still used today and is known — because of mistranslation of the Italian by a British mathematician — as the “Witch of Agnesi.” Analytical Institutions, which was published in 1748, was highly regarded in academic circles for synthesizing complex mathematical ideas with clarity and precision.
Analytical Institutions and the articulation of the Witch of Agnesi earned her a spot in the Bologna Academy of Sciences. But by that time, she had abandoned mathematics and devoted herself to charity work. When asked a decade later what she thought of recent developments in calculus, she said she was “no longer concerned with such interests.” She was eventually appointed director of a home for ill and infirm women, and she spent the rest of her life caring for the dying until her own death in 1799.