The First Female Mathematician
Hypatia is the first female mathematician that we know much about. Her date of birth is unknown, but it is suspected to be around 355AD-370AD. Her father, Theon, was a renowned astronomer and mathematician. He taught her everything he knew from a young age. She wrote her own commentaries and helped her father with his, taking over her father’s work and subsequently exceeding his abilities. Later, she travelled to gain more knowledge which resulted in her becoming a philosopher alongside her mathematical work. Hypatia then returned to Alexandria to teach all she had learned to her students. She was a very well-respected teacher, and her students also became successful. Hypatia seemed to be loved by her students and peers alike until her associations got her into trouble.
Politics in Alexandria
Cyril was the head of the Christian religious presence in Alexandria. He was hostile towards other beliefs and religions during an unstable period in Alexandria. He led an angry mob that caused the exile of Jewish people from the city Orestes oversaw the civil government at that time, and Hypatia was a known friend of his. Orestes and Cyril were rivals due to their powerful nature in equal measure. Therefore, when the fight over who should control the city of Alexandria broke out, Hypatia was a target. As Hypatia was a well-known figure within the community, her death would send a strong message to the civil government and their supporters. She had spoken out about philosophy that didn’t conform to Cyril’s beliefs and therefore caused him to further seek out her death.
The Brutal Death
The most documented event in Hypatia’s life is her death. Around the year 415, Hypatia was taken from her carriage as she was returning home from her lecture. Cyril spread a rumour that Hypatia was a witch, causing an uproar within the Christian community. A man called Peter the Reader rallied a mob and plotted against Hypatia. She was hacked to death by the Christian mob inside of the church. She was stripped, beat with roofing tiles and then her remains were burned. Those out-with the mob that caused the killing never truly understood the need for such a disgustingly brutal attack on Hypatia. No singular person was given the blame for her murders. Members on both sides of the dispute saw this as an unneeded killing. An alternative account is that her murder was not targeted and instead was a result of Hypatia being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The majority of Hypatia’s work has been lost despite her making such a strong contribution to the mathematical society. We know she had a large impact, as her work is often referenced, and her students spoke of her abilities with awe. Hypatia is an example of how women can excel in the field of mathematics; and her ability to succeed in a time when there were few other women in the industry is a testament to her character.
Michael A. B. Deakin, ‘Hypatia and Her Mathematics’, The American Mathematical Monthly, March 1994, pp. 234-243
Elbert Hubbard, ‘Hypatia’, Improving College and University Teaching, Winter 1972, Vol 20, No. 1, pp.8-9.
Edward J. Watts, ‘Hypatia, The Life and Legend of an Ancient Philosopher’, 1/02/2017
Sarah Zienlinski, ‘Hypatia, Ancient Alexandria’s Great Female Scholar’, 14/03/2010, <https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/hypatia-ancient-alexandrias-great-female-scholar-10942888/>
JJ O’Connor and E F Robertson, ‘Hypatia of Alexandria’, <https://mathshistory.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Hypatia/>show less