Hypatia Biography


(Literature and the Ancient World, Critical Edition)


Hypatia (hi-PAY-shee-uh) was the daughter of Theon, a distinguished professor of mathematics at the Alexandria university whose goal was to raise, in Hypatia, the perfect human being. Hypatia studied with the finest teachers, including Plutarch in Athens, and coauthored a treatise on Euclid with her father. Mathematically, she is remembered for her work in algebra and conic sections. She is known to have invented several mechanical devices, including an astrolabe, a planesphere for astronomical studies, and an aerometer for distilling water and measuring its properties. She was equally renowned as a philosopher of the Neoplatonic school. Beautiful and intelligent, she was a popular teacher at the university and received many offers of marriage (all refused).

Hypatia became entangled in a power struggle between the “pagan” Orestes, prefect of Alexandria, and the Alexandrian patriarch, Cyril. Neoplatonism, with its scientific rationalism, ran counter to the mysticism of Christianity, and Hypatia, a good friend of Orestes, became a target of political and religious reprisals. On her way to classes one morning, she was pulled from her chariot by a mob, mauled, and dragged to a church where her hair was torn out and her skin scraped from her bones before she was burned to death.


Hypatia is the first well-known woman in the history of mathematics. Because of her reputed beauty and dramatic death, her life was widely romanticized later.


(The entire section is 627 words.)