Women Who Rock: Maria Agnesi

By: Kassidy Emerson / March 9, 2009

Maria Agnesi (pronounced on-YAY-zee) was born May 16, 1718 in Milan, Italy, the eldest of the 21 (!) children Pietro Agnesi fathered with his three wives. Although women weren’t normally educated at the time, Maria’s father recognized her potential. The family wealth, derived from the silk trade, allowed Agnesi to be taught by the most learned members of the Roman Catholic Church — and she didn’t disappoint. Agnesi learned Italian and French as a youngster, and by the time she was 13, she also spoke Latin, Greek, Spanish, Hebrew and Spanish. Agnesi published a Latin dissertation at age 9. In it, she defended the need of women to receive an education. By 20, Maria Agnesi published “Propositiones Philosophicae,” which boasted 191 essays about philosophy and science. Maria Agnesi also wrote a Calculus textbook that she used to educate her brothers after their mother died. And, in 1750, her mathematical genius was recognized by Pope Benedict XIV when she was appointed professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna, becoming the first woman to hold such a position. Although Agnesi’s name was on the university’s roster for the next 45 years, she never traveled to Bologna. Instead, after her father died in 1752, the plain, humble woman finally followed her heart’s desire. The famous mathematician, philosopher, and author spent the remainder of her life studying Catholicism and caring for the sick and poor.

Further reading:

  • The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God by Massimo Mazzotti