She is one of the more romantic figures in science. She was the daughter of Theon, a mathematician who taught at the great school at the Alexandrine Library. She traveled widely and corresponded with people all over the Mediterranean. We know of her only through her letters because all of her work was destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandia was destroyed.
She taught at the school in the Library in Alexandria, Egypt. Letters written and addressed simply to the philosopher were delivered to her. She taught mathematics and natural philosophy. She is credited with the authorship of three major treatises on geometry and algebra and one on astronomy. She invented several tools: an instrument for distilling water, an instrument to measure the specific gravity of water, an astrolabe and a planisphere.
She died violently. She was dragged to her death by a mob who pulled her from her classroom into the streets where they peeled her to death with oyster shells.
She wrote that
All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.
Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.
To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing.
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.
Of course, no actual likeness of Hypatia exists today. This engraving from the book "Little Journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers" by Elbert Hubbard (New York: Roycrafters), 1908, is often used to represent her.
For the truly dedicated here is a selection of essays on Hypatia plus a long list of books and the libraries where they can be found.
A review of a relatively new book about Hypatia has just surfaced. The book is Hypatia of Alexandria by Maria Dzielska, 1995 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press). The review can be found in Free Inquiry, 1996, Vol 16, No. 4. The book describes Hypatia's death as more of a political assassination than just at the hands of a very angry mob. It suggests that Hypatia got in the middle of a rivalry between Cyril, the bishop of Alexandria, and Orestes, the civil authority of the city who arrived sometime after Cyril had been in position. Hypatia sided with Orestes. Her influence was so great that this undermined Cyril and he moved against her, eventually having her killed (so says this book).
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