How the first recorded female mathematician, Hypatia, paved way for women in math and philosophy

 

The Great Alexandria

Many of us have been educated on humankind’s earliest civilizations. One of the more infamous yet mysterious communities we have collected knowledge on was Alexandria. It was a port city located in present-day northern Egypt, and one of the greatest Mediterranean cities to exist in our recorded history. 

It was founded in approximately 331 BC by Alexander the Great, a fierce Macedonian ruler and military genius. Alexander left to pursue a takeover of nearby Persia, so Alexandria was left to be ruled by the Ptolemaic Dynasty for nearly three centuries; a famous ruler within this dynasty includes queen Cleopatra VII. Alexandria was known as the greatest city to ever exist and would later become a major hotspot for early Christianity, a center for religious turmoil from clashes between faiths. 

A highly regarded figure that emerged from this time was true icon Hypatia.

 

Who was Hypatia?

Hypatia (355-415 AD) was one of the first well known feminine figures in philosophy, astronomy, and math. 

“First” is a loosely applicable term in this discussion since the TRUE first female mathematician was Pandrosion, but Hypatia was the first to be well recorded and depict historical accuracy about one of the world’s most prolific civilizations.

She lived during the time of ancient Alexandria, but existed amidst an incredibly disorderly and violent era in the empire’s existence. Due to the turbulent chain of events that occurred during and after her time, it greatly accentuates Hypatia’s success to defy traditional odds inflicted upon Alexandrian women. 

She was absolutely set up for greatness; her father was a well known mathematician, Theon of Alexandria (335-405 AD). It was most likely that she was taught and instructed by her father, which shows through the similarities in their separate works. Theon was most known for aiding in the preservation of Euclid’s Elements, a thirteen book collection encapsulating mathematical theories and proofs. Much of his work molded her own, as she took great effort in preserving the historical intellect of Greek heritage, especially in the fields of math and philosophy.

A well-loved Pagan, Hypatia was quite tolerant towards those of Christian faith.This is incredibly important being that she existed in a time where the Christians, Jews, and Pagans were all experiencing conflict with one another. Her well-composed demeanor helped establish a reputable relationship with the elite upper class; this dynamic even bled into responsibilities she held later in her life. 

Hypatia’s realms of expertise were heavily male dominant fields of intellect, work, and discourse. Therefore, a woman entering that space with confident and productive contributions challenged the conventionality of Alexandria’s gender roles and dynamics. 

 

What did she DO exactly?

Hypatia was credited with writing commentaries for various texts. She constructed a commentary focusing on Diophantus’ Arithmetica. This is a partially survived thirteen volume text harping on the development of number theory through equations. Her other prominent commentary revolved around Apollonius of Perga’s Conics. Conics is a dissertation about conic sections and their influence on modern and ancient analytical geometry. 

Her commentaries greatly exemplified her high level of intelligence and understanding of math as well as philosophy. In fact, she was so well-versed that she became a very well-known 

teacher at the Neoplatonic school of Alexandria; she taught philosophy and astronomy. This school grounded their particular education in the teachings of infamous figures Plato and Aristotle. It catered largely to both Christian and Pagan students, and many who were of the Pagan faith became loyal pupils and friends of Hypatia.

Aside from her educational endeavors, Hypatia also spent time constructing various tools for use in her fields, such as the hydrometer and astrolabes. Even though she didn’t invent them, she showed great familiarity with their functionality.

Hypatia’s great relationships with her pupils influenced the effects of historical events on her life. The religious divide in Alexandria was very tumultuous and chaotic, and possibly led to the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. There were books from the Library believed to be kept in the Serapeum, a temple of the Greco-Roman god Serpais, led by Saint Theophilus of Alexandria. That temple was eventually destroyed as well due to its ties to the Great Library.

Coincidentally, Theophilius was associated with one of Hypatia’s devoted pupils, Synesius. These mutual ties termporarily permitted Hypatia to continue her work until her death. Once the theologian St. Cyril ascended into his power, he continued his uncle Theophilus’ work by enabling the violence against non-Christian civilians. Hypatia was gruesomely murdered by a group of fanatical Christians; Hypatia was a well-known Pagan and fell victim to their rioting.

Despite her demise, Hypatia remains a powerful feminist icon and influential mathematician. She represented great resilience, female empowerment and a perseverance to break the mold that’s been repeatedly inflicted upon feminine figures in the past and present. 

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