Hypatia of Alexandria (?370 -415)


The exact date of Hypatia’s birth is uncertain, but records suggest sometime between 350 and 370 AD. Born in Alexandra in Egypt, she also studied in Greece, and is considered by many as the first notable female mathematician and astronomer, which she explored alongside her philosophy teachings. She was a strong advocate of the Plotinus way of thinking, which encouraged logical thinking and mathematical studies, and she eventually became the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in around 400 AD. She primarily taught philosophy, in particular the works of Plato and Aristotle. People would travel from other cities to hear Hypatia lecture on different topics. Hypatia contributed to many works, some collaborative efforts with her father Theon Alexandricus, who according to the Byzantune encyclopedia, was the last head of the Museum at Alexandria. In his education of her, Theon taught her about different religions of the world, as well as how to keep good physical health.

Hypatia’s most notable contributions to astronomy and science include the charting of celestial bodies and the invention of the hydrometer, used to determine the relative density and gravity of liquids. She is most well known in mathematics for her work on conic sections, introduced by Apollonius, which divided cones into different parts by a plane, which developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas and ellipses. She edited the works On the Conics of Apollonius making them easy to understand, and thus allowing the work to survive the course of time.

Hypatia did not act like ‘normal’ women at the time – she dressed in the clothing of a scholar or teacher rather than in traditional womens clothes, and drove her own chariot in order to move freely around the Empire. She would don a philospher’s cloak and preach freely about Plato or Aristotle.

Hypatia lived in Alexandria when Christianity began to dominate, and rioting between religions was commonplace. A Pagan, Hypatia was referred to as a “valiant defender of science against religion”, her life was ended brutally by a Christian mob who blamed her for religious turmoil. It is claimed that her body was stripped of flesh and her body parts scattered through the streets, and burnt. But her legacy lived on. Her students fled to Athens, where the study of mathematics flourished, and the school she headed in Alexandria contined until Arabs invaded in 642 AD. Many of her works that were housed in the library of Alexandria were destroyed by Arab conquerors – their existence known only through letters exchanged between her contempories.