Hypatia, born around 355 AD in Alexandria, Egypt, and died in March 415 AD, was a Greek mathematician, astronomer and philosopher who lived in a very turbulent era in Alexandria’s history. She is the earliest female mathematician of whose life and work is known in reasonable detail. Hypatia was the daughter of Theon of Alexandria, himself a mathematician and astronomer and the last attested member of the Alexandrian Museum, which was a great library, teaching and research centre, rather like a modern university. Theon is best remembered for the part he played in the preservation of Euclid’s ‘Elements’, but he also wrote extensively and commented on Ptolemy’s great astronomical work, ‘Almagest’ and ‘Handy Astronomical Tables’.


Hypatia continued with her father’s program, which was a determined effort to preserve the Greek mathematical and astronomical heritage in extremely difficult religious times. Hypatia lectured widely in mathematics, astronomy and philosophy to students from her home. Her lessons also included methods of constructing an astrolabe, a kind of portable astronomical calculator. Hypatia donned an academic outfit and is described as being articulate and logical in her speech and actions, as well as public-spirited, and most of the city of Alexandria gave her a suitable welcome and accorded her special respect.

Theophilus, the archbishop who destroyed the last of Alexandria’s great library, was succeeded in 412 AD by his nephew, Cyril, who continued in his uncle’s hostilities towards other faiths. With Cyril, the head of the main religious body of the city government, a fight began over who controlled Alexandria. Under such religious fanaticism, Hypatia, who wasn’t Christian, became a target of Christian fanatics. One day on the streets of Alexandria in Egypt, in the year 415 or 416 AD, a mob of Christian zealots led by Peter the Lector, accosted Hypatia’s carriage and dragged her from it and into a church, where they stripped her and beat her to death with roofing tiles. They then tore her body apart and burned it.

Hypatia, almost alone and virtually the last Greek academic, stood for intellectual values, ascetic Neoplatonism, the crucial role of the mind, and the voice of temperance and moderation in civic life, as one of her commentators, Deakon wrote. She may have been a victim of religious fanaticism, but Hypatia remains an inspiration to women of science and mathematics, even in modern times.


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