The first woman who make a substantial contribution to the development of mathematics is Hypatia. Hypatia was the daughter of the mathematician and philosopher Theon of Alexandria and it is fairly certain that she studied mathematics under the guidance and instruction of her father. It is rather remarkable that Hypatia became head of the Platonist school at Alexandria in about 400 AD. There she lectured on mathematics and philosophy, in particular teaching the philosophy of Neoplatonism. Hypatia based her teachings on those of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism, and Iamblichus who was a developer of Neoplatonism around 300 AD. She was, in her time, the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer, the only woman for whom such claim can be made.
Hypatia came to symbolise learning and science which the early Christians identified with paganism. However, among the pupils who she taught in Alexandria there were many prominent Christians. One of the most famous is Synesius of Cyrene who was later to become the Bishop of Ptolemais. Many of the letters that Synesius wrote to Hypatia have been preserved and we see someone who was filled with admiration and reverence for Hypatia’s learning and scientific abilities.
An early manifestation of the religious divide of the time was the razing of the Serapeum, the temple of the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis, by Theophilus, Alexandria’s bishop until his death in 412 CE. This event was perhaps the final end of the great Library of Alexandria, since the Serapeum may have contained some of the Library’s books. Theophilus, however, was friendly with Synesius, an ardent admirer and pupil of Hypatia, so she was not herself affected by this development but was permitted to pursue her intellectual endeavours unimpeded. With the deaths of Synesius and Theophilus and the accession of Cyril to the bishopric of Alexandria, however, this climate of tolerance lapsed, and shortly afterward Hypatia became the victim of a particularly brutal murder at the hands of a gang of Christian zealots. It remains a matter of vigorous debate how much the guilt of this atrocity is Cyril’s, but the affair made Hypatia a powerful feminist symbol and a figure of affirmation for intellectual endeavour in the face of ignorant prejudice. Her intellectual accomplishments alone were quite sufficient to merit the preservation and respect of her name, but, sadly, the manner of her death added to it an even greater emphasis.
All Hypatia’s work is lost except for its titles and some references to it. However no purely philosophical work is known, only work in mathematics and astronomy. Based on this small amount of evidence Deakin, argues that Hypatia was an excellent compiler, editor, and preserver of earlier mathematical works. As mentioned above, some letters of Synesius to Hypatia exist. These ask her advice on the construction of an astrolabe and a hydroscope.