Women in Science: Hypatia of Alexandria, Ancient Astronomer

Image Credit: J.M. Gaspard, 1908.

Hypatia of Alexandria is a most fascinating historic figure. Born around the year 355 AD, she is the earliest female scientist of whom we have detailed knowledge. She was also thought to be the world’s leading astronomer and mathematician while she was alive. Until today this cannot be said about any other woman.

Unfortunately, none of Hypatia’s own writings have survived till today but some works of her colleagues and students did. They give us an impression about why she was such a famous scientist. The letters of one student, Synesius, talk about her lectures including the design of an astrolabe, a kind of astronomic calculator that was used until the 19th century. Hypatia also developed other scientific instruments and wrote mathematical textbooks.

Hypatia was born in Alexandria as the daughter of Theon of Alexandria who was a mathematician himself and a member of the Alexandrian Museum. The Museum of Alexandria was a research institute and school, similar to today’s universities. You could say that Theon was a professor there.

Theon taught Hypatia himself and when she reached adulthood she was better than her father in mathematics and philosophy. From around 380 Hypatia became a teacher in the Alexandrian Museum herself and in the year 400 AD she took over her father’s position as the Head of the Platonic School in Alexandria.

Many of Hypatia’s students would go on to become important figures in the Roman Empire. Her student Synesius, for example, would later become the bishop of Ptolemais. She was also very well respected by the government in Alexandria who would often look to her for advice. This gave Hypatia a lot of political power.

During Hypatias’s time Alexandria was an centre for learning and part of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, the city was also in turmoil due to conflicts between Christians, Jews and Pagans. Hypatia herself would have been considered a Pagan but her Neoplatonic philosophy was compatible with Christian and Jewish views. In fact, many of her students were Christian.

Christianity had only recently become the Roman Empire’s state religion. Alexandria’s archbishop, Cyril, steadily gained political power commanding a group of fanatical, violent monks that destroyed pagan temples and harassed the Jewish population. This lead to conflicts with the Roman governor Orestes who was a moderate Christian himself.

Being friends with Hypatia, Orestes turned to her for advice in this situation. However, Cyril accused Hypatia of witchcraft trying to turn Orestes against Christianity. In March 415 when Hypatia was out travelling in the city, a mob of Cyril’s militant monks brutally murdered her.

Today, Hypatia is mainly remembered for her violent death. In my opinion, we should remember her more for being the world’s first leading female scientist instead. This would do her much more justice.

 

 

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