Dubreil-Jacotin on Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Marie-Louise Dubreil-Jacotin contributed an article about women mathematicians to the original French text of the book translated into English as [F Le Lionnais, Great Currents of Mathematical Thought (London, 1971)]. When she wrote the article, Dubreil-Jacotin was Professor, Science Faculty, Poitiers. In the extract below she writes about the contribution of Maria Gaetana Agnesi:-


... we have the Italian Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799), the first woman professor of mathematics on a faculty; indeed, she was appointed professor at the University of Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV. Maria Gaetana Agnesi was a very gifted and precocious child. Her father, Don Pietro Agnesi, feudatory of Monteveglia, actively encouraged his daughter in her studies and, proud of her, exhibited her in the kinds of academic meetings fashionable at that time.

But, of a self-effacing nature, she went into the background again after the death of her father and finally went into retreat among the nuns of the "Azure" order, where she is said to have given of herself unsparingly and to have been an object of great edification.

She left behind, under the name of Instituzioni analitiche, a "remarkable account of ordinary algebra, with the solution of several solved and unsolved geometric problems"; a second volume, entirely devoted to infinitesimal analysis, a science then quite new, was declared "the most complete and the best done in this field" by the commissioners of the Academy of Sciences of Paris, who were assigned to examine this work at their meeting of 6 December 1749. This book was translated into French and published "under the license of the Royal Academy of Sciences" by a decision of August 30, 1775, signed by the permanent secretary of the Academy, upon the advice of the commission composed of d'Alembert, the Marquis of Condorcet and Vandermonde.

The contribution of Agnesi to the study of curves of the third degree was great enough that one of them still bears her name: "the Witch of Agnesi."


JOC/EFR March 2006

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