Redressing the balance 2 : Hypatia


Debbie Gill continues her blog on famous female mathematicians, giving background information for Maths GCSE students.

Try googling “female mathematician” and Hypatia will probably appear in most of your search results. So who was she?

Hypatia was born in Alexandria, Egypt in around 370AD. It is thought that she was educated by her father who was himself a mathematician and teacher at the Museum of Alexandria which was a centre of study for Greek intellectuals.

Why is she famous?

She became a lecturer and wrote commentaries on the works of Diophantus and Apollonius. This may not seem very significant but her work on algebra and conic sections contains many alternative solutions and new problems. In many histories of Mathematics Hypatia is the only female to be given a mention and that is in itself a great achievement. The full extent of her contribution to Mathematics is not known as most of her works were destroyed but part of one piece was discovered in the Vatican library in the 15th Century.

Hypatia’s motivation appears to have been the desire to make complicated mathematics more accessible to her students through her teaching and writing. I wonder what she would have made of today’s GCSE and A level Mathematics course materials – the writers of Oxford Open Learning’s courses doubtless had the same ideals in mind.

Hypatia could be described as an early feminist. She dressed in clothing similar to that of other teachers rather than traditional women’s clothing, she had her own chariot and moved about the city freely.  In 400AD she became the Head of the Platonist School in Alexandria, an unusual post for a woman at that time.

Her life had a sad ending as she was brutally murdered by a mob of fanatical monks who believed her to be a heretic.  Hypatia was the last of the great mathematicians of her era and her death marked the end of a significant period of Mathematics history.

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