Hypatia of Alexandria – The Unsung Mathematician

In our studies of math, we learn from hundreds of individuals who’ve greatly influenced our perspectives of mathematics. These famous individuals created various theorems and proofs, and left us with questions to resolve. Individuals such as Euclid brought us marvels that were passed on for generations. His book The Elements created a foundation for many mathematicians, and helped them find breakthroughs in science and math. Unquestionably, our society and technology may not be where it is if it weren’t for these individuals. As we look at our own development of math, we learn names such as Pythagorean and use it repeatedly throughout our math education. Although the works of these persons are marvelous, there are many mathematicians and scientists who are unknown. They may not have found a theorem that completely changed the world around us, but they contributed towards something equally great. Truly these are our unsung mathematicians that are unknown to the world but known to the few who’ve learned or specialized in the field of math or science. One individual that I’ve found and never heard of before was Hypatia. Her biography may not be found in a history book about Rome, but she was an influential person to those around her. She is considered to be the first female mathematician known. Personally, reading about her impresses me because the math profession at the time was highly male dominated and lacked women. I can imagine that she had to go through many challenging experiences to prove herself as a respected mathematician. Her life could be seen as a tragedy and it is even romanticized in the 2009 film Agora, but those who knew her revered her greatly.

Depiction of Hypatia. Image: Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Who was she?
There is little information about where Hypatia was born or even a birth date. Scholars believe that she was born between 351 AD and 370 AD. Around this time period, Rome was in a slow decline, and there were civil disputes because of the influence of Christianity. Her father Theon was a well-known mathematician and astronomer who taught Hypatia the foundations of her knowledge in those fields. It’s significant to note that Theon was the last known survivor of the Museum of Alexandria and played a part in the preservation of Euclid’s The Elements. Hypatia and her father Theon would collaborate on commentaries on classical mathematical works, and she would eventually have students of her own. As she followed her father’s footsteps, she also developed knowledge in philosophy and became head of the Platonist school of Alexandria. She primarily taught the works of Plato and Aristotle and it was recorded that many people would come from different places to learn from her. She would wear the robes of a scholar and nobody questioned that she didn’t wear the traditional female clothes. Her work was well respected everywhere and it simply didn’t matter how she appeared to her audiences. The people of Alexandria revered her as a virtuous figure and an intelligent scholar. She believed in Neo-Platonism, a belief system that states everything emanates from the One. This belief system states that the One is considered God or the Good of all things. But what’s interesting is that the One is neither existent nor a being. This abstract thought provoked the teachings of Christianity and most likely made Hypatia a target for zealots. Although Hypatia’s beliefs conflicted with others of the Christian faith, she tutored Synesius of Cyrene who later became a bishop and incorporated Neo-Platonism into Christianity.

Depiction of Hypatia’s Death. Image: Public domain, via WIkimedia Commons.

Hypatia’s popularity to those around her eventually led to her own death. There are a couple of different accounts of her death but it basically resulted from a dispute between her friend Orestes, the Governor of Alexandria, and Cyril, the Bishop of Alexandria. Whatever conflict or feud these two individuals had, this led to Hypatia being brutally murdered by a mob of Chrstian zealots. There are two different documentations of this event and little is known how old she was when she died. Although she was murdered, her students fled to Athens and the school she taught in Alexandria continued her teachings.

Her Works and Legacy
Many of Hypatia’s works were destroyed around 652 AD when the Arabs invaded Alexandria. However, a couple of letters that she exchanged with her students were still available. One of her students mentioned before, Synesius, exchanged a letter that talked about a hydrometer and astrolabe. These writings expanded on the concepts and structures of these two objects. Some other works that she has done, in collaboration with her father, were commentaries on Arthimetica by Diophantus and The Elements by Euclid.

Hypatia leaves a legacy that has been seen as an inspiration or tragedy. Many politicians, poets, and writers used her death as part of a cause for them and to influence others. I see her as one of our history’s unsung mathematicians who had so much more to give if she had lived longer. As time has progressed, we live in a day and age where there are more opportunities for unsung heroes such as Hypatia. Because of technology and access to colleges and universities, anyone can study mathematics. Although you and I may not be the next Euclid or even Hypatia, our small contributions and interest may eventually lead to something great and we can be known as the unsung heroes of our generation.