Hypatia
c. 370 415 C.E.

Hypatia was born in 370 A. D. in Alexandria, Egypt and was later described as a beautifully and well-proportioned woman. She was the daughter of Theon who was a distinguished professor at the University of Alexandria. Nothing of Hypatia's mother is known, but that is not uncommon for this time period.

Theon had high expectations for his daughter for he was intent on producing a perfect human being. For this reason, Hypatia was a fortunate child. Her father acted as her tutor and teacher when training Hypatia in the fields of arts, literature, science, and philosophy. Theon also made his daughter do physical activities, such as rowing, swimming, and horseback riding, to keep Hypatia physically fit. Hypatia was trained in speech enhancing her ability to relay her knowledge to others and her giftedness to be an orator.

While travelling abroad in Athens, Greece, Hypatia attended a school where she established her fame as a mathematician. On returning to Alexandria, she was asked to teach mathematics and philosophy at the same institute as her father. It was here that she lectured on Diophantus' "Arithmetica." Her speeches included discussions on the techniques Diophantus developed, solutions to his indeterminate problems, and the symbolism he devised. She is also said to have lectured on people such as Plato and Aristotle. People came from all over the world to hear Hypatia lecture.

Along with her lectures, Hypatia also wrote several treatises. It is unknown how many she wrote because a lot of them were destroyed through the ages. Evidence does show, however, that she wrote commentaries on "The Conics of Apollonius" and "Amagest," which included Ptolemy's numerous observations of the stars, as well as an analysis of her father's edition of Euclid's "Elements." Most of the writings Hypatia completed were actually meant to be used as text books to help her students with difficult math concepts.

Hypatia's most famous pupil was Synesius of Cyrene, who later became the Bishop of Ptolemy. It is through some of his letter's that he wrote to Hypatia that researchers are able to learn more about her. In his letters Synesius credits Hypatia with creating an astrolabe and a planesphere, which were both devises for studying astronomy, as well as instruments for distilling water, for measuring the level of water, and for determining the specific gravity of liquids. Very few of these instruments have remained.

Hypatia belonged to a school of Greek thought whose beliefs were opposite of the dominant Christian religion of the time. Anyone believing in this neo-Platonic thought was concidered a heretic because of the disruption that was caused between these two different beliefs. In 412, Cyril became the patriarch of Egypt and he encouraged the belief among the people that it was because of Hypatia's friendship with Orestes, the prefect of Egypt, that was the cause of the disruption of Egypt. So, in March 415, Cyril convinced a mob of religious fanatics that the death of Hypatia would bring peace back to Alexandria. In response, the fanatics caught Hypatia on her way to the University. They proceeded to pull Hypatia from her chariout, strip her naked, drag her to the church, butcher her into pieces, and then burn her body. Her murder remained "symbolic by generations of European freethinkers, scientists, and anti-Catholics" (McLeish, 1991). It was a brutal death but Hypatia will always be concidered the first woman in mathematics.

Contributed by Mikelle Mercer

References:

  1. Eves, H. W. (1964). "An introduction to the history of mathematics" (5th ed.). New York, NY: The Saunders Series.
  2. Grinstein, L. S. and Campbell, P. J., ed. "Women of mathematics." New York, NY: Greenwood Press.
  3. McLeish, J. (1991). "The story of numbers." New York, NY: Fawcett Columbine.
  4. Osen, L. M. (1992). "Women in mathematics." Cmabridge, MA: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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