Hypatia of Alexandria

Hypatia of Alexandira (370-415) was the only famous woman scholar in ancient Egypt. She became a teacher and wrote many books on mathematics along with criticisms of philosophical and mathematical concepts.

Although all of her work has been lost or destroyed, history regards Hypatia of Alexandria as the only famous female scholar of ancient times. She was the first woman ever known to teach and analyze highly advanced mathematics.

Hypatia probably studied mathematics and astronomy under the tutelage of her father, Theon of Alexandria (fl. c. 4th century A.D.), the last recorded member of the city's great Museum. The Museum of Alexandria in Egypt was a prominent cultural and intellectual center which resembled a large modern university. It consisted of several schools, public auditoriums, and the famous library, once one of the most comprehensive repositories of books in antiquity. Although the Museum was in Egypt, its dominant culture and a considerable portion of its population were Greek. At one time, scholars came from across the Roman Empire and even from as far away as Ethiopia and India to hear lectures on the latest scientific and philosophical ideas and to study in the city's library.

Hypatia became a teacher at Alexandria's Neoplatonic School and was appointed its director in 400 A.D. Her lively lectures won her popular esteem, and she wrote a number of books on mathematics and other subjects, as well as criticisms of philosophical and mathematical concepts which her contemporaries regarded as perceptive. She corresponded with many distinguished scholars, some of whose letters to her survive and testify to their estimation of her abilities.

Although written records are sketchy, it appears that Hypatia invented or helped to invent mechanical devices such as the plane astrolabe, an instrument used by Greek astronomers to determine the position of the sun and stars. This device was probably developed with Synesius of Cyrene (c. 370-413 A.D.), a scholar who had attended Hypatia's classes. A letter to Hypatia from Synesius, who later became a Christian and the bishop of Ptolomais, exists in which he asks her advice on the construction of the device. Synesius also worked with Hypatia on a graduated brass hydrometer, which measured the specific gravity of liquids, and a hydroscope, which was used to observe objects submerged in water.

At the age of 45 Hypatia was brutally murdered by a mob. The reasons behind her violent death are in dispute, though her personal independence and pagan beliefs seem to have created hostility among Alexandria's Christian community. Another contributing factor appears to have been her alliance with Orestes, the pagan governor of the city, and a political adversary of Cyril (c. 375-444 A.D.), the Alexandrian bishop. After Hypatia was killed, her works perished, along with many other records of ancient learning, when mobs burned the library, destroying the entire collection.