Gerolamo Cardano
1501 - 1576

Gerolamo Cardano was born after failed attempts to induce an abortion, in Pavia, Italy on 24 September, 1501, the illegitimate son of the jurist, Fazio Cardano, and Chiara Micheri. In his autobiography, De vita propria liber (The Book of My life), Gerolamo describes his childhood to be spent with frequent illnesses and less-than-loving parents. He escaped his family in 1520, where he entered the University of Pavia. He finished his studies in 1526 at the University of Padau, earning a doctorate in medicine, and he set up a medical practice near Padau in the village of Saccolongo. This is where he met is wife Lucia Bandarini, and married in 1531, and had two sons and a daughter.

Cardano and his family moved to Milan in 1534, where he took up teaching at the schools founded by Tommaso Piatti for instruction in Greek, astronomy, dialectics, and mathematics. He began his mathematics research while doing this. While teaching at there schools he wrote his first mathematical works. It was while working on a book about algebra, Ars Magna, (Great Art), that he and his assistant, Ludovico Ferrari, became aware of a new discovery--a rule or formula for solving cubic equations.

Cardano and Ferrari heard that Nicolo Fontana Tartaglia had discovered a formula for an equation which included a cube of a variable done geometrically rather than algebraically. They politely asked for the permission to include the rule in Cardano’s book. Tartaglia refused; because he wanted to reveal this in a book he planned to write. They began to exchange insulting and threatening letters, but Tartaglia refused to budge. Cardano then invited Tartaglia for a visit, lavishing him with gifts and compliments. Eventually, Tartaglia agreed to share his rule--cleverly hidden in a poem--on one condition, that Cardano would swear to keep the secret until Tartaglia himself had printed it first. With that, Cardano quickly agreed.

They then heard that Scipiore del Ferro had solved the problem, and before he died shared the secret with his student, Antonio Fior. Fior yielded to the flattery of Cardano and showed him the rule. Since someone else had solved the same equation, Cardano felt his promise to Tartaglia was void. He quickly published his book, which included Tartaglia’s secret.

While teaching, Cardano remained a doctor. In 1543 he accepted the chair of medicine at the University of Pavia, where he remained until 1560 with a seven-year hiatus from 1552-1559. In 1552, Cardano even treated the Archbishop of Edinburgh, by realizing the Archbishop was allergic to his bed. This shows how far his reputation as a doctor had reached.

Cardano was forced in disgrace from Milan when in 1560, his eldest son was accused of attempting to poison his wife upon childbirth. And on April 13th, his son was beheaded while in prison. Cardano then found a professorship of medicine at the University of Bologna. He got into trouble in 1570 when he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for the heresy of casting the horoscope of Jesus Christ. He had cast his own horoscope and predicted he would die at the age of seventy-five, and when he found himself in perfect health, he committed suicide by drinking a glass of poison on September 21, 1576 to ensure his prediction would come true.

Contributed by Jennifer Goodwin


Reimer, Luetta & Wilbert. Mathematicians are People, Too. “Stories from the Lives of Great Mathematicians.” vol. 2. 1995. Dale Seymour Publications.

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