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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 53.djvu/419

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SKETCH OF MARIA AGNESI.

SKETCH OF MARIA AGNESI.
By M. JACQUES BOYER.

TO assert that women have had an important influence on the progress of science would certainly be exaggeration; but to say that they have always been wholly foreign to it would be still more inexact. The female sex have, in fact, been for many centuries contributing to the extension of the field of scientific knowledge; and now that they are beginning to take a more prominent part in affairs of this category it seems a favorable time to review some of their achievements, and to notice some of the women whose scientific accomplishments have been most remarkable.

We begin with a Milanese mathematician of the eighteenth century—Maria Agnesi, a woman who was unique among the few who have occupied themselves with the exact sciences. Her precocious intelligence and a prodigious memory, which permitted her to express herself correctly in seven languages, and her rare aptitude for one of the most arduous branches of mathematics—the infinitesimal analysis of which Leibnitz and Newton had only just indicated the formulas—the saintliness of her life, divided between study, prayer, and charitable works—all contribute to make her one of the most agreeable characters which the scientific history of the last century offers us.

This illustrious learned lady was born in Milan, May 16, 1718.[1] Her father, Dom Pietro Agnesi Mariami, was a royal feudatory of Monteveglia, and her mother was named Anna Brivia. Baptized on the 23d of May in the basilica of Santo Nazzaro il Maggiore, she was given the name of Margaretta Gaetana Maria. She showed marked aptitude for languages from a very early age. She spoke French well when five years old, as we learn from the following sonnet by a friend of her father's: "At that age which retains only the first forms of the language of her country, and which is still easily fatigued by the task, a pretty little girl uses the French idiom with such grace and ease that a nymph on the banks of the Seine could not speak in a sweeter and more pleasant manner. It seems as if Time was afraid his flight could not keep up with the


  1. In the Éloge historiquie de Maria Gaetano Agnesi, demoiselle célèbre par ses grands talens dans les mathématiques, par se pieté et sa bienfaisance, ouvrage traduit de I'ltalien de Frisi (Paris, 1807, 8vo, p. 5), she is said to have been born March 16, 1718, but that is a typographical error. We should read May. This work, composed from the archives of the Agnesi family, is otherwise very exact, and a large number of the facts that follow have been derived from it. It is needless to add that the general dictionaries, including even the Biographic Universelle de Michaud (new edition, 1843, vol. i, p. 233), have rejected Frisi's error.