A Woman of Science: Maria Gaetana Agnesi

A cavalcade of women whose scientific achievements have had an important impact on the way we live and do things, challenges any attempt to stereotype these geniuses as colorless drones or “nerds,” which is merely a neologism of Dr. Seuss from 1950. For instance, the mathematician Gabrielle Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil was an elegant if wayward mistress of Voltaire, and also had a child by a minor poet, the Marquis de Saint-Lambert, while sustaining the affection of her long-suffering husband, the Marquis Florent-Claude du Chastellet-Lomont. In 1749, she died at the age of forty-three, having given birth to a short-lived girl at her desk while translating some of Newton’s Principia. The newborn was placed on a large leather-bound volume illustrating infinitesimal calculus. A generation earlier, the German entomologist Maria Merian raised eyebrows when she outfitted herself for a dangerous journey to study insects in Suriname.

In England, the paleontologist Mary Anning, impoverished daughter of a cabinetmaker who died when she was eleven, spent much of her life searching for late-Jurassic fossils in the cliffs at Lyme Regis and was rewarded with the first discovery of what she named an ichthyosaurus, before she died in 1847, one year before the death of Caroline Herschel. Caroline was German and was told by her father that she was too ungainly to attract a husband. Eventually, she left her work as a housekeeper to assist her brother in England with his musical and astronomical interests. She polished the telescope with which he discovered the planet Uranus, took up the science herself, and discovered eight comets. Laden with pensions from British royals and the King of Prussia, she was still observing the stars when she died at age 96.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, the Countess of Lovelace, was no less exotic than her father, Lord Byron, but the principal influence on her talents was her tutor, the astronomer Mary Somerville, for whom the college in Oxford is named. Ada was only 36 at her death in 1852, but packed a lot into those years, and, having invented the first algorithm for a mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine, she has claim to being the first computer programmer.

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The entombment of Marie Sklodowska Curie in the Pantheon in Paris in 1995 was 61 years after her death from aplastic anemia, the result of her immeasurably beneficial work as the discoverer of radium and polonium. As a naturalized French citizen, she was the devoted wife of Pierre, whose death when run over by a carriage left her widowed with two small children; her favorite cookbook is preserved but remains too radioactive to be handled. Her daughter Irene discovered artificial radioactivity, and died at the age of 58, stricken with leukemia. Thus both of them were martyrs of science, and are the only mother-daughter Nobel laureates.

These names in various ways inspired the inventiveness of countless more recent figures. The granddaughter of Madame Curie, Helene Langevin-Joliot, is a nuclear physicist, still active at the age of ninety-one in 2018. Attaining a medical degree at Johns Hopkins in 1920, Helen Taussig saved the lives of thousands of infants as the founder of pediatric cardiology, which she managed to do despite her dyslexia and deafness. Her motto was, “Learn to listen with your fingers.” When Rosalind Franklin died in 1958, she had laid the groundwork for Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA. Lisa Meitner (d. 1968), an Austrian who, as a Jew, fled the Nazis, discovered nuclear fission, Barbara McClintock’s Nobel Prize in physiology before her death in 1992 was for her work as a cytogeneticist, and Dorothy Hodgkin (d. 1994), an Englishwoman born in Egypt, determined the structures of penicillin, insulin, and vitamin B12. One of her students in Oxford, the future Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, kept her photograph in 10 Downing Street. Thatcher’s university dissertation was on X-ray crystallography of the antibiotic cocktail gramicidin. Before entering politics, Thatcher worked as an industrial chemist at British Xylonite Plastics. While she regretted not having studied law, her radioactivity research at least metaphorically helped her to see through her opponents.

It belabors the obvious to remark that all of these scientists seem to have been happy in themselves, and would disdain the gnostic polemics of the “transgender” lobby that pretends sexual identity is not a fact but a persuasion. Some of them reasonably complained about the way their femaleness was an obstacle in the eyes of some men. Just think of Mary Anning denied membership to the Geological Society of London, although she could surpass in achievement all its self-satisfied male members: “The world has used me so unkindly, I fear it has made me suspicious of everyone.” The Marquise du Chatelet had written an essay on how women had been impeded in scientific pursuits by the lack of secondary education. But unthinking prejudice has had a long history. For sore wounds in the annals of science, we can look back to the fifth century when fanatical Christian monks, in Alexandria, possibly enflamed by the rhetoric of Saint Cyril, dismembered the neo-Platonist philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician Hypatia.

The purpose of this essay is not to indulge in identity politics, and I mention this only as an aside. If discrimination against women in science has been a neuralgic matter it was real nonetheless. After all, while there are lists of “Famous Female Scientists” there is no instinct to compile lists of “Famous Male Scientists.” There is enough evidence to confound any imputation of lesser intelligence to women, but there have been periods when exceptionally bright women were called witches, while clever men were never called warlocks—save perhaps rarities like the polymath Gerbert of Aurillac after he became Pope Sylvester II—but that was only for political reasons. I can only make a domestic reference: my father was something of an inventor and engineering genius, a gift he did not pass on to me, but my mother could match him. She was a licensed volunteer Red Cross ambulance driver and auto mechanic during World War II, successful enough in her vigilance that the Nazis never invaded New Jersey, and she could fix a flat tire faster than I. In the heyday of Amelia Earhart, she took flying lessons in a craft that looked held together with string, and enjoyed the thrill of flying through turbulence, another gift not passed along to me. My parents were parted by death only briefly, and that symbiotic companionship is the nurse of the most benevolent science.

In 2014, the Iranian mathematician at Stanford University, Maryam Mirzakhani, became the first woman to receive the highest of honors in her science, the Fields Medal, dying of breast cancer three years later at age forty. It remains that only 9 percent of all editors of mathematics journals are women, and women hold only 15 percent of the tenure track positions in mathematics, 14 percent in engineering, and 18 percent in computer science. Yet women match men in the number of undergraduate degrees in science, and we know from experience that they generally have a higher verbal competence that only hearing-impaired men could deny, and score higher on most science tests. The scholastic attribution of inductivity to men and intuitiveness to women is a useful distinction, though always wrong when applied absolutely. It allows us to see a complementarity between male and female personalities in scientific research. There is also the consideration that many women have maternal obligations which rightly have priority, but the maternal instinct also explains why women in general, avoiding the danger of overstatement, have a greater affinity for sciences involving living things rather than things inanimate. It may be significant that they shine in obstetrics and comprise 75 percent of all veterinary doctors. There is evidence this difference in interest manifests itself in other professions and helps explain sex inequalities by occupation.

All this sows enough seeds for discussion, and is tangential to the Catholic lady who pursued a scientific career bonded with a mystical contemplation of Christ’s death and resurrection that animated her whole life. Maria Gaetana Agnesi was the first woman to attain worldwide fame as a mathematician. She followed the first woman to receive a doctorate in philosophy, Elena Piscopia (1646–1684). A Venetian, Piscopia spoke seven languages by the age of ten and as a Benedictine oblate dedicated her advanced musical talents and erudition in mathematics and astronomy to the Lord who had given her brains and everything else. The second European to become a doctor of philosophy, and the first to hold a university chair in physics, was the Bolognese physicist, Laura Bassi (1711–1778). She worked closely with her husband in electrical experimentation, studying the work Benjamin Franklin, while birthing twelve children.

As I have noted elsewhere, when Archbishop Lambertini became Pope Benedict XIV, having been her patron in Bologna, he fought opposition to make her one of the twenty-five members of his scientific academy. She is buried in Bologna in the church of Corpus Domini next to Luigi Galvani, father of bioelectromagnetics, in whose honor galvanizing is named. If explorers ever make it to the planet Venus, they will find a crater named for Professor Bassi, along with one for Maria Agnesi. Bassi was roughly contemporary with Agnesi who was seven years her junior. Agnesi was born exactly three hundred years ago, in the year that the French mathematician Jacques Ozanam died. As a devout Catholic, he would probably not mind that his legacy is eclipsed by his great grand-nephew, Frederick Ozanam, who founded the Society of Saint Vincent de Paul.

The father of Maria Agnesi, who was a professor of mathematics in Milan, encouraged his daughter in the basic liberal arts as well as classical and modern languages, and she proved a polyglot like Elena Piscopia under the tutelage of a priest who was her cousin. From an early age her studies included serious theology, for her thwarted ambition was to be a nun. Her father, prosperous himself but desirous of an aristocratic connection, married into Milanese nobility, but when his wife died, he wed twice more, with eventually twenty-one children, Maria as the eldest was responsible for their care. Shy by nature, she nevertheless obliged her proud father by giving lectures in Latin to his fellow professors, one of them a discourse on the importance of educating women. Her major mathematical work was a two-volume text on differential and integral calculus, and she also advanced the study of conical sections.

Pope Benedict XIV had her appointed to a full professorship of mathematics and natural philosophy in his beloved university of Bologna, an honorific which she accepted but never exercised. Although most attractive and propertied, she never married, and the death of her father in 1752 freed her to devote the last forty years of her life in prayer and study of the Early Fathers. Her most significant work on the role of reason in mystical contemplation was Il cielo mystico. She testified: “Man always acts to achieve goals; the goal of the Christian is the glory of God. I hope my studies have brought glory to God, as they were useful to others, and derived from obedience, because that was my father’s will. Now I have found better ways and means to serve God, and to be useful to others.”

Those decades enabled her to form a “Pio Instituto Trivulzio” for care of the sick poor, and she turned her house into an infirmary and hospice where she personally nursed the afflicted and comforted the dying. To provide for this, she sold her own lands and belongings, including diamonds given her by the Empress Maria Theresa, and gold prizes awarded by Pope Benedict. Her body was interred in an unmarked grave with fifteen paupers.

The prodigy’s sister, Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, was a composer, harpsichordist, singer and librettist, and on occasion accompanied her sibling’s lectures with incidental music. She composed seven operas, as well as various arias for the empress to sing in Vienna. Her portrait hangs at La Scala. Recently, the Sonoma winery of Francs Ford Coppola has bottled an “Agnesi 1799” brandy in honor of the mathematician, along with a gin named for the astronomer Ada Lovelace.

This tercentenary year of the birth of Maria Gaetana Agnesi should be a celebration. In our age of rapid canonizations, it is well to remember that she left this world over two centuries ago and a Cause in her name might be neither hasty nor remiss. Words of Jacques Ozanam certainly would be a fine epitaph for her: “It is for doctors to dispute, for the pope to decide, and for mathematicians to go to heaven in a perpendicular line.”


  • Fr. George W. Rutler

    Fr. George W. Rutler is a contributing editor to Crisis and pastor of St. Michael’s church in New York City. A four-volume anthology of his best spiritual writings, A Year with Fr. Rutler, is available now from the Sophia Institute Press.

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