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Mathematicians in History: The Feminine Math-tyque

Dec. 3, 2008

During the 4th Century, Theon was a celebrated professor of mathematics at the University of Alexandria. He claimed he could raise the perfect human being. He wished to give this child all sources of knowledge, from mathematics and the sciences to languages and arts as well as create a physically strong individual.* Of course, Theon referred his boasting to a son, but as fortune would have it, he was not blessed with boys, but a daughter named Hypatia. Despite this obvious setback, Theon was determined to generate this perfect child. Whether Theon was hard-headed and would not cease from his bragging or was open-minded to the education of a woman, Hypatia was immersed into a grand schooling. Unlike most women, Hypatia knew she could achieve anything she wanted, including the study of mathematics. She was lucky. Her situation was the key factor for her blossoming education. Hypatia gained much respect for her work in mathematics and ultimately became a teacher and worked beside her father in the same university. Hypatia was able to take advantage of the opportunity afforded her by her free-thinking father and surpass even his knowledge of mathematics.**

After exceeding her father's teachings, Hypatia continued her studies in Athens, at the time, the center of mathematics.** Due to Theon's reputation, the school allowed her to study, and she established her mathematical prevalence.** Her opportunity to study higher mathematics was a rare one, especially during the 4th century, but Hypatia took advantage of her privilege and ascertained great knowledge of the discipline. In the famous painting The School of Athens by Rapheal, many suspect one of the figures is Hypatia (see Raphael's School of Athens). Unlike many female mathematicians to come after her, Hypatia was fortunate to receive the highest level of education from the center of mathematics.

After traveling most of Europe with her father, Hypatia established her reputation as a bright, mathematical thinker. Once she returned to Egypt, the University of Alexandria offered her a teaching position.** Her original teaching style and love for the subject attracted many scholars from around the globe and her reputation in Alexandria was one of awe and respect.* She delivered lectures on the Arithmetica by Diophantus and other individual interests.** Her novel perspective proved her mathematical genius. She was considered "a goddess, a genius, an oracle, and a gifted orator [and she helped] mathematics survive in a very tenuous world."*

Hypatia never married or had children, but her acceptance as a mathematician was widespread. She knew if she were to marry, she would not be free to pursue her mathematical ambitions. Only through sacrifice, avoiding the domestic sphere, was she able to attain the fame and knowledge so desired.

In addition to her famed teaching, Hypatia also was an author. Many of her works were lost in the destruction of Alexandria library.** In one of her books, Astronomical Canon of Diophantus and Conics of Apollonius, she hints at the idea of parabolas, hyperbolas, and ellipses using conic sections.* This mastered work established the grounds for the natural phenomena of cone and plane intersections.* Amazed by the prospects of geometry, she also authored a commentary on Euclid's Elements with her father. Her impressions on the world of mathematics are countless and many call her the "mother of mathematics" *. Her career of teaching and writing were a clear success and a rarity in the 4th and 5th century.

Unfortunately, Hypatia came to an untimely death. As a liberal, free-thinking female, she was considered a threat by many high-positioned men. One day, on her way to the University, she was met by an angered crowd who beat and mauled her. She was dragged into a near-by church and killed.

There are few women in history who mastered the art of mathematics and made significant contributions to its evolution. Hypatia is the earliest known female mathematician, and her ability to break female gender roles of 4th century Egypt is an accomplishment in its own.

* Morrow, Charlene and Teri Perl. Notable Women in Mathematics: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1998.

** Osen, Lynn. Women in Mathematics. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1974.

Natalee Miller graduated from Baylor with a BS in Mathematics in May 2008. She is now doing graduate work in education at Simmons College in Boston, MA.