Hypatia was one of the most prominent mathematicians and astronomers of late antiquity. She was famous in her time and is considered to be the first woman mathematician (that we know about). Scholars traveled from around the world to learn mathematics and astronomy at her school. We still don’t know the exact number of her works, as they did not survive due to political and religious unrest at the time of her life and death. Thankfully she had a number of famous students who kept information on her contribution to ancient philosophy. There are some remnants of her original work, like the treatise and discourse on “The Conics of Apollonius” and “Amagest”. These works contain her philosophical beliefs as well as her studies of stars and planets. From one of her most devoted students, Synesius of Cyrene, and the letters he wrote to her, we learn about her life. Those letters credit her with the creation of an astrolabe and hydrometer. Although there are accounts of astrolabes earlier in history, and she did not invent them per se, she created her own versions of them without any specific manuals, only based on descriptions by Synesius.
The reason why Hypatia was able to study philosophy, mathematics and astronomy was because of her father, Theon of Alexandria. He was a prestigious scholar at the University of Alexandria and brought her up as a son, much to the criticism of others as it was against the norm at the time. Despite conflicting evidence and writings about Hypatia, it is certain that she was a “martyr for philosophy”, bearing influence on the elites of her society, editing the surviving text of Ptolemy’s Almagest and serving as an advisor to Orestes, the Roman governors of the city. She made a permanent mark in history and is still remembered and romanticised in literature and film.
“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time.”
Socrates of Constantinople
More about her life and work
We move on now to perhaps the original ‘woman scientist’, although who knows what other female groundbreakers have been lost to the annals of history.
Some of the most fundamental questions and ideas about our nature and our place in the universe originate in the works of Hypatia, and yet she is rarely mentioned in the same breath as her more famous male counterparts, the Aristotles and Euclids of this world.
Much of our knowledge about Hypatia’s life and work is shrouded in mystery, as many sources haven’t survived the centuries since, whether through war, fire or other natural disasters. Much of what we know about her comes from a series of seven letters written to her by one of her most famous pupils, Synesius of Cyrene.
Hypatia was born in the latter half of the 4th Century AD in Alexandria, a Greco-Roman city in modern day Egypt that boasted a world famous library and a hub for mathematical and philosophical thought, second at the time only to Athens.
Her father, Theon of Alexandria, was a renowned scholar in Euclidean theory and his student-friendly version of Euclidean Elements was an educational staple for many centuries. Hypatia followed in his footsteps in devoting her life to the teaching of Neoplatonism, a philosophical school that propounded the idea, rooted in the work of Ptolemy, that everything in the universe grew out from a singular, all controlling power called ‘The One’. A teacher by trade, her primary influence lay in her educational writings on the works of great thinkers before her, simplifying complex concepts for her students.
She was not just a theoretician however; she was also a practical teacher and made an impact in a number of scientific disciplines, including astronomy, mathematics and algebra. She learned the art of manufacturing astrolabes – a tool used to work out the date and time based on where stars and planets are in the sky; it can also be used to predict their positions at future points – and handed down this knowledge to her students.
She died in the year 415 AD at the hands of a Christian mob, who allegedly dragged her into a converted pagan temple and hacked her to pieces before dragging her remains through the streets of Alexandra to be cremated outside the city’s bounds – so as to prevent the risk that her body be turned into religious relics. Her murder was described by the 5th Century historian Socrates Scholasticus as a political assassination, caused by her perceived involvement in a feud between the Roman prefect of the city and its new bishop.