The woman who paved the way for female mathematicians

Hypatia looked over the large crowd that had gathered to hear her speak. She was living in ancient Egypt, during a time when most women weren’t encouraged to have ideas of their own. But her mathematical mind drew many people eager to hear what she had to say. 

Born around 350 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, to a famous mathematician and philosopher, Hypatia had more freedom than many girls and women because of her respected father. Most women didn’t study math or science, and they weren’t allowed to engage in politics. But Hypatia became one of the first women to study and teach math, astronomy, and philosophy.

Historians don’t know who Hypatia’s mother was, only that she grew up with her father, Theon, who wanted to raise the “perfect human.” To him, this meant someone who was physically and mentally healthy. So Theon taught Hypatia everything he knew about math, as well as how to be an influential speaker.

Hypatia worked with her father to update old textbooks with new information about geometry, algebra, and astronomy. She had a gift for breaking down complicated subjects into smaller pieces that were easier to understand. Because of this, their notes influenced mathematicians and astronomers for centuries.

As an adult, students came from all over the city to learn math and astronomy from Hypatia. She was especially respected for teaching people how to use a portable device called an astrolabe, which measured the angle between the horizon and a star or a planet. For 200 years, this device helped sailors figure out both the time of day and their location on the ocean.

Hypatia also applied mathematics to philosophy. She built on the ideas of Neoplatonism, a way of thinking based on the belief that humans form ideas from their experiences, just like how we learn 1+1=2 by putting a pair of socks together. Huge crowds attended her public lectures.

But her teachings introduced ideas that were different from Christianity, which was becoming the main religion people followed. When Cyril, a new Christian bishop, came to power in 412 A.D., Alexandria split into two groups. Cyril’s main rival was Orestes, the governor of Alexandria, who was friends with Hypatia. Believing that Hypatia’s philosophy influenced how Orestes governed the city, a group of Cyril’s followers killed Hypatia while she was giving a public lecture in 415 A.D.

Thanks to Hypatia, women had a public voice for the first time and proved that they could have intelligent thoughts just like men did. Her notes on math and astronomy helped modern mathematicians and astronomers come up with advanced theories that are still used today.