Hypatia of Alexandria (370 - 415)

Hypatia was the first women we know of who had an impact on mathematics. She studied under her father Theon in Alexandria, Egypt and assisted him on an eleven part commentary of Ptolemy’s Almagest.

She probably also helped him write the version of Euclid’s Elements which has become the basis of all subsequent copies.

But we don’t know much about her own work. What is certain, is that this remarkable woman became head of the Philosophy school in Alexandria.

The school was regarded as one of the great learning centres of the world and Hypatia seems to have given lectures in philosophy and maths. All of her work has sadly been lost over the years. We only have references to it in letters written to her by her pupil Synesius.

Scholars argue about the type of work she produced and while we are certain she was a charismatic teacher, she may well have written commentaries rather than producing any original work.

It seems likely that she studied Diophantus’s Arithmetica and also looked at the geometry in Apollonius’s Conics as well as the work of her father. We also know that Synesius consulted her about astrolabes and hydroscopes which she may have invented.

Hypatia lived during tumultuous times. She came to symbolise learning and science which were seen as pagan beliefs increasingly at odds with the late Roman Christian world.

‘Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all’ she said. This way of thinking has lead to her becoming a legendary figure to many - a beacon of reason at a time when the Roman Empire was descending into the dark ages. However these beliefs cost her life and she was killed by a fanatical Christian mob in 415.