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Maria Gaetana Agnesi (12 September 1718 – 9 January 1799 exact date unknown) was an Italian mathematician and philosopher. She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a Mathematics Professor at a University. She is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was an honorary member of the faculty at the University of Bologna.
She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to charitable work and serving the poor. This extended to helping the sick by allowing them entrance into her home where she set up a hospital. She was a devout Christian and wrote extensively on the marriage between intellectual pursuit and mystical contemplation, most notably in her essay Il cielo mistico (The Mystic Heaven). She saw the rational contemplation of God as a complement to prayer and contemplation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, clavicembalist and composer, was her sister.
Contributions to mathematics
The Instituzioni analitiche…, among other things, discussed a curve earlier studied and constructed by Pierre de Fermat and Guido Grandi. Grandi called the curve versoria in Latin and suggested the term versiera for Italian, possibly as a pun: ‘versoria’ is a nautical term, “sheet”, while versiera/aversiera is “she-devil”, “witch”, from Latin Adversarius, an alias for “devil” (Adversary of God). For whatever reasons, after translations and publications of the Instituzioni analitiche… the curve has become known as the “Witch of Agnesi”.