Born in Italy on this day in 1718, Maria Gaetana Agnesi was a highly esteemed 18th-century mathematician, linguist, and philosopher. She wrote the first book to ever discuss both differential and integral calculus, she was the first female in history to be awarded a professorship, and she is thought to be the most important female mathematician since Hypatia (a Greek philosopher who led the Platonist school in Alexandria, in Roman Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD).
Maria Gaetana was born into a wealthy family of Milanese silk merchants. She was the eldest of 21 children, and her sister Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini also found fame as a pianist and composer. Maria Gaetana was a precocious child prodigy, and she was taught by the very best tutors from an early age. At the age of five she could speak both Italian and French, and at 13 she could also speak German, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Spanish, earning her the nickname “The Walking Polyglot.”
When she was only nine, Maria Gaetana’s father Pietro Agnesi had her compose and deliver an hour-long Latin speech on the subject of women’s right to be educated, in front of a group of adult academics. When she was 15, Agnesi started to host such gatherings in his lavish house on a regular basis, encouraging his daughter to show off her understanding of even the most abstract philosophical questions in front of an audience of very distinguished intellectuals. When she was 20, he published Propositiones philosophicae (Propositions of Philosophy), a series of essays about natural philosophy and history based on her talks.
Pietro was, in other words, one of the 18th century’s most remarkably pushy parents. Maria Gaetana herself was actually shy and disliked public speaking, or even leaving her house. She wanted to enter a convent but her father refused, so she remained home studying mathematics and tutoring her many younger siblings.
In 1748, Maria Gaetana published her most famous work Instituzioni Analitiche Ad Uso Della Gioventù Italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth), widely accepted as one of the most brilliant algebraic treatises ever written. Pope Benedict XIV was so impressed that in 1750 he appointed her Professor of Mathematics at the University of Bologna—the first time a woman was ever elevated to this position.
As it turned out, Maria Gaetana Agnesi never even visited the University of Bologna, as she was becoming increasingly involved in religion. After the death of her father in 1752 she devoted herself to theological study and to charity. She was appointed director of Milan’s Hospice Trivulzio for Blue Nuns, and later in life she joined this austere sisterhood herself—she eventually died in the hospice she once directed.