Badass women of science: Hypatia of Alexandria

Note: Since the publication of this piece, I’ve been informed by multiple sources that Sagan’s description of Hypatia was inaccurate, and there are several other factual errors in this piece. Until I have corrected them, I refer you to the criticisms in the comments section, and suggest that you read this post with these cautions in mind. Thanks, and apologies for my errors. –Jennifer

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth — often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.” –Hypatia

“She beguiled many people through (her) Satanic wiles.”– Bishop John of Nikiû

The problem of female participation in science isn’t exactly a new subject, and there’s not much I can add to the ongoing discussion, except to say that I believe one of the ways to encourage young women to feel comfortable pursuing a career in the sciences is simply to increase the visibility of women scientists. In this blog I intend to make a special effort to highlight the work of contemporary research done by my female colleagues (For example, I encourage you all to read my post on the interesting work of Dr. Charla Marshall.). But I also want to discuss the contributions of women throughout the history of science.

Today’s post is a happy result of boredom. Over the past weekend I was doing a lot of DNA sequence analysis, which can be extremely tedious process. To keep myself awake and motivated, I’ve been working from home, where I can stream Netflix shows in the background. And after finishing “House of Cards” for probably the fifth time (I seriously love that show), I went on a “Cosmos” bender. I thought about writing a separate post about how much I adore this series, but really….just watch it for yourself. The effects may be a little dated, but Carl Sagan is an absolute joy to watch.

At one point Sagan spoke movingly and eloquently about Hypatia of Alexandria, a woman I had never heard of before. (This is not necessarily due to a lack of visibility–much has been written about her–but simply my own ignorance). His obvious awe of her made me curious, and so I did some reading.

I think this Muse from the Field Museum is an appropriate symbolic image of Hypatia.
I think this Muse from the Field Museum is an appropriate symbolic image of Hypatia.

I learned that Hypatia was a remarkable woman. Living in Egypt sometime between AD 350–370-415, she was a Neoplatonic philosopher (in fact, she was the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria). She was a teacher and public lecturer of mathematics and science, in the traditions of the times (which emphasized logic over empiricism). Although none of her solely-published works are known to have survived to the present day, secondary sources describe her research on mathematics and astronomy, and she is known to have co-authored some of the writings of her father, the philosopher Theon Alexandricus.

Contemporary accounts spoke of her as a brilliant and charismatic woman, and Hypatia’s accomplishments made her both visible and threatening. She was murdered by a Christian mob during a period of great conflict and political tension between Christians, Jews and pagans in the city, possibly either torn apart or skinned with oyster shells.

Hypatia was therefore a martyr of science in a very literal sense. I’m sad that I’d never heard of her before now, and I can’t help but wonder whether young women who are interested in science and mathematics learn about her alongside the worthy, but inevitable Marie Curie*.

If I get the chance, in the future I will simply direct them to this contemporary account written about her:

“There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia, daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not infrequently appeared in public in the presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in going to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more.” — Socrates Scholasticus, “Ecclesiastical History”

*Who was a fine scientist, but seems to be the only woman in science that most people remember.

References and further reading

9 thoughts on “Badass women of science: Hypatia of Alexandria

  1. Kathleen Burke June 5, 2013 / 6:25 am

    Thanks! I had never heard of Hypatia.

  2. Kay August 28, 2013 / 9:31 am

    Just found your blog and will follow…thanks for your posts!

  3. CS August 29, 2013 / 1:15 pm

    Thanks for this post! Adobe created a beautiful typeface named Hypatia within the last ten years which I enjoy using.

  4. John Milligan November 20, 2013 / 11:45 pm

    I LOOOVE the Cosmos series and I do remember Carl’s admiration for Hypatia. You may be interested to know that there is going to be a “reboot” of the series hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson and produced by Seth MacFarlane (of “Family Guy”) and Anne Druyan (Carl Sagan’s widow).

    • SK Williams April 14, 2014 / 4:40 pm

      Sagan actually got the story of Hypatia wrong. She was not killed by the Church for her Philosophical views, nor did they burn down the Library Of Alexandria. She was killed over a local dispute involvign Politics. Wiel it is True that the mob that killed her were Christians, its not really True thatthe Cruch sanctioned it and among Hypatia’s closest friends were Christians, including the manw ho woudl become Bishop of the Area.

      Sagan was not a great historian and bought too much intot he COnflict Thesis, promoted by 19th Century crackpots.

      The segment on Hypatia is actually as false as his successopr shows segment on Giordano Bruno.

      • Jennifer Raff April 14, 2014 / 5:25 pm

        SK-thanks for your comment. I’m going to do a bit more reading on this subject, and I will correct the post when I’ve finished. Really appreciate your correction of my errors.

  5. Peter February 21, 2014 / 4:03 pm

    The quote in the beginning of this article is bogus, it was invented by Elbert Hubbard, a salesman turned self-publishing author, in his book series, “Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers.” The Hypatia book was published in 1908, where he made up several quotes, as well as even her height and weight, without any source.

    There are no historical records containing first hand writing of Hypatia’s, and the only record of anything Hypatia ever said is a letter to Hypatia from Bishop Synesius of Cyrene where he repeats a comment she made to him.

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