Ann Varela: Hypatia

Feb 25, 2017 by

An Interview with Ann Varela: Hypatia

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Ann, I have often heard that Hypatia, an Egyptian, was considered the first woman mathematician.  What do we know about where, and when she was born, and her early education and experiences?

Indeed, Hypatia was the first well-known woman mathematician.  She was born in Alexandria in about 370 and died in 415.  She learned about the cosmological findings of Claudius Ptolemy under the tutelage of her father, Theon of Alexandria, who was a mathematician.  She is reported to have attended a school in Athens, Greece, where she studied mathematics intently.

Additionally, her studies included such topics as medicine and philosophy once she returned to Alexandria.  Her broad knowledge of these disciplines, along with her orating skills, allowed her to become a professor at the University of Alexandria.  Hypatia often lectured on mathematics and philosophy at the Museum.  Her classes attracted many renowned listeners.

2)  What do we know about her contributions–both to the field of mathematics, as well as philosophy?

It is believed that Hypatia’s ability to explain intricate theories in simple ways was one of her greatest talents and contributions to the field of mathematics.  She wrote detailed manuscripts about Diophantine algebra, the Conics of Apollonius, and the compositions of Ptolemy and Euclid, clarifying, sharing ideas, illustrating, and leading discussions among her students as well as anyone in the city center who would listen.  It is thought that her manuscripts were originally created to guide and inform her students.  In addition, Hypatia developed and constructed scientific apparatuses, including an astrolabe (used for making astronomical measurements) and a hydrometer (used for measuring the density of liquids).

It is both incredible and noteworthy that a woman was permitted to be a professor in the fourth-century.  Hypatia lectured at the Platonist school in Alexandria in about 400 AD.  At this school, the Platonist point of view was that an ultimate reality existed which was beyond the reach of thought or language.  It was also believed that mere humans were incapable of understanding this ultimate reality and its existence.  Those practicing the Platonist philosophy were considered “pagans”.

3) Like many others, her work was criticized. What did some of her critics have to say about her?

Unfortunately for Hypatia, she grew up during the same time as the conversion of the fourth-century Roman emperors to Christianity.  During this time, learning and science were identified with paganism.  Persecution was now upon the pagans.  Hypatia was content with the Greek religion.  She had no intention to convert to Christianity and she was accused of influencing others in the political/religious debate.

4) As with many famous individuals, there is always an interesting story about the person’s life or death.  What can you tell us about her death and how that came about?

Her religious beliefs caused conflict and outrage among some Alexandrians who had converted to Christianity, so much so, that she was allegedly followed by an angry mob on her way home from the university and sliced with oyster shells, dismembered, and ultimately burned to death.  Some accounts include her hair being torn out as well.

5) Sadly, due to the passage of time, much of her work is lost- but can you give us some links to learn more about this fascinating female mathematician?

Based on my research, one major reason for the loss of written work from Hypatia’s life time is due to the Christians and Moslems burning most of the Museum and its library.

Here are some links to learn more about Hypatia:

6) What have I neglected to ask?

Perhaps the death of Hypatia is regarded as the end of Greek mathematics because of the mass destruction of math, philosophy, and science manuscripts stored in the Museum and its library.

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  1. Avatar
    Ann Varela

    Thank you for your inquiry. One of the resources I found said that the dramatic impact of Hypatia’s death was what caused that moment in time to be the end of ancient mathematics. It is believed that many women were discouraged to study mathematics after Hypatia’s cruel fate, yet other women were more inspired by her bravery. Up to this point in Alexandria, volumes of transcripts were stored in the Museum’s Library; a sort of warehouse of knowledge. While the Christians who were trying to convert the Greeks to their religion often take the blame for the destruction of the Museum and its Library, the Moslems also were responsible for burning what books remained in 641.

    • Wafa Hozien, Ph.D. Senior Contributor
      Wafa Hozien, Ph.D. Senior Contributor

      Thank you for sharing that information. As a history major, I was always intrigued by the intersection of history and the sciences and how they are preserved to this day. I have many students majoring in math that are female, hoping that they follow in Hypatia’s passion for Math!

  2. Michael Shaughnessy
    Michael Shaughnessy

    I have passed your comment on to Ann—she is really the mathematician….My math skills stopped at Trig and Statistics…and that was in Non-parametric !!

  3. Wafa Hozien, Ph.D. Senior Contributor
    Wafa Hozien, Ph.D. Senior Contributor

    Thank you Michael for all things Math. The story left me hanging and wondering how Greek Math lives on, since you/Ann stated:”Perhaps the death of Hypatia is regarded as the end of Greek mathematics because of the mass destruction of math, philosophy, and science manuscripts stored in the Museum and its library.” What library, I thought? The one in Alexandria? Greece? Why was Hypatia’s death seen as the Death of Greek Math?

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