Maria Gaetana Agnesi: The Witch of Agnesi Curve

Two STEM women on Google Doodles this week! Biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin, the only British woman to win Science Nobel prize (in 1964), was on UK’s Google Doodle on Monday. Today we have mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. The committee of the Académie des Sciences wrote that Agnesi’s work embodied “skill and sagacity.” ( I pusblished the following on Agnesi’s work on STEM Women.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Today’s Google Doodle honours Italian mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi who was born on the 16th of May, 1718. Growing up during the Italian Renaissance and being part of an elite family, Agnesi’s love of mathematics, philosophy and languages was actively encouraged. Her family hosted various intellectual seminars, which she helped lead, despite being otherwise shy and socially withdrawn. Agnesi spoke various languages; Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish and German. She excelled in Latin: at the age of nine, she translated a Latin text “defending the right of women to access higher education.” An early STEM feminist text!

Agnesi made significant contributions in algebra. At the age of only 20, she wrote two famous volumes, Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth, which addressed differential and integral calculus. It was intended as a textbook to help her brothers’ learning, but it soon became renowned across Europe.

Witchy Math Woman?

The Google Doodle represents Agnesi’s most famous work, the Witch of Agnesi Curve, which became adopted from the late 20th century by physicists and mathematicians working with x-rays, optical lines, and electrical circuits. The title of this work is also one of the most infamous STEM mistakes. Guido Grandi studied Agnesi’s curve, and he suggested it should be given the Latin name versoria which describes “the rope which adjusts the trim of a sail on a boat.” Her English translator, John Colson, kept the name the Witch of Agnesi, as the word for versoria resembles the Latin word versiera, which translates to “witch” or “devil.”

Early STEM Retirement

Agnesi’s work was so outstanding that she was elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences. She received a diploma in mathematics and her name was put forward for a faculty position. Unfortunately, there was wide debate amongst this male-dominated institution as to whether Agnesi should be allowed to take up this appointment. As this debate dragged out, Agnesi had already changed her focus to charity.

After her father’s death, she never returned to math. She instead became the director of a hospice, and she dedicated her life to caring for ill and dying people. She eventually became a nun. She would never return to STEM, even as her ideas spread across the world, but she continued her charity work until her death in 1799.

Further reading

Biography & math contribution:

On the mix up of Witch of Agnesi:

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