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Ancient women philosophers and scientists

If you are asked to name a famous ancient person, who will that be? Probably some clever Greek scientist connected with mathematics and physics like Pythagoras or Archimedes, or an even brainier philosopher like Plato or Aristotle, whose names you may have probably heard or read somewhere. Though you still know very little about them, you will study about them at some point at school.

What about if you are asked to name a woman ancient philosopher or scientist? What's you first reaction? If you think that there are no such women, read the short biographical notes below:

 Ancient Sumer                                   

En Hedu' Anna


En Hedu' Anna lived in Babylon around 2354 B.C. Her father was Sargon who created the Sargonian Dynasty of Babylon during that time. En Hedu' was the chief priestess of the Moon Goddess of the city of Babylon. This was an extremely powerful role, as the priestess was the only person who could name any new ruler to the city.

Sumeria and Babylon were the first cities to establish astronomy and mathematics. These disciplines were created and controlled by the priests and priestesses of the cities. Therefore, En Hedu' was one of the primary forerunners of astronomy and mathematics.

She, along with other priests, created several observatories inside religious temples, with which to view the stars and the moon. Maps were made of these celestial bodies' movements.

In addition, En Hedu' helped create one of the first religious calendars, which is still used today in certain religions to celebrate Easter, Passover, and other religious events. 

Today no technical writings from her are preserved. There are in translation only forty-two of her poems. But En Hedu' was the first female name to be recorded in technical history.


 Ancient China                                  


Si-Ling Chi



About the same time across the world, on the eastern side of Asia, legend tells us that the first empress of China - Si-Ling Chi (c. 2640 BCE) discovered the secret of silk weaving by watching silkworms at work in her garden. She discovered how to unwind the silk from the cocoon and weave it into a garment, and so she founded the silk industry in China. Yao, wife of the fourth emperor, invented spinning.

The Chinese were great inventors and had many advances available to them long before they were known in the Europe but the names of inventors were seldom recorded. We do know that the Empress Shi-Dun (c. 105 CE) with her eunuch Cai-Lun first invented a method for making paper from mulberry tree bark. 

 Ancient India                                     

In ancient India a natural woman philosopher named Maritrayee was mentioned with respect in the Vedas, which are some of the most ancient religious literature, some as old as 3000 years. Gargi, daughter of Vachaknavi, (1500 BCE) was honored as a philosopher in the ancient Sanskrit literature, the Upanishads (the inner or mystic teaching), written by the sages of India between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE.

Another learned lady was Khana of India, assumed to live in between 800 - 1200 BCE. Her history is mostly legend, but it is said that her knowledge of astronomy was better than her astronomer husband's. And coming back again to Babylon, Tappeti-Belatikallim (c. 1200 BCE) was known as an alchemist who worked with perfume production.

Sanskrit Vedic literature refers to Leelavati as a respected natural philosopher and the inventor of mathematics. She might be the daughter of a noted Indian mathematician Bhaskaracharya who did many important things in astronomy and mathematics including resolving a problem with the zero. He was the first to note that division by zero did not give zero; it resulted in infinity. He wrote a book on algebra called Leelavati named after his daughter, also called Leelavati. However, there is a version that Leelavati herself is the author of the book.



 Ancient Egypt                                     

Little is known of another ancient philosopher - Aganice of Egypt, except that she lived about 1875 BC and was a member of the court of Pharaoh Sestoris in Egypt. She sought wisdom through natural philosophy and astrology. She studied globes and constellations in order to predict future events. It is reported that she computed the positions of the planets. She computed the positions of the planets - in hieroglyphs!


 Ancient Greece                                

According to tradition, Theano (c.6th Century BC) was the wife of Pythagoras. She and her two daughters carried on the Pythagorean School after the death of Pythagoras. She wrote treatises on mathematics, physics, medicine, and child psychology. McLemore writes that her most important work was the principle of the "Golden Mean." But discerning what Theano actually did is extremely difficult. As stated in the article in the Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science. That Theano continued to operate the school of Pythagoras after his death is often affirmed but not confirmed. Thus, it can only be stated that, according to tradition, Theano was a mathematician, a physician, and an administrator-someone who kept alive an important training ground for future mathematicians.

The ancient Greek natural philosopher Perictione, who was a disciple of Pythagoras (569 - 475 BC) and probably taught in his school, is considered the author of two writings that survived today: "Wisdom" and "Harmony of Woman"

Aglaonike (circa 200-unknown), also known as Aganice of Thessaly is cited as the first female Astronomer in Ancient Greece. She was regarded as a sorceress for her ability to make the moon disappear from the sky, which has been taken to mean she could predict the time and general area where a lunar eclipse would occur. 



Mary the Jewess lived in Alexandria probably in the first century AD (some sources refer to 3 century AD). She discovered the formula for hydrochloric acid. She invented many tools for handling chemicals, one of which is still known today as the bain marie - the water bath (the double boiler), Marianbad in German. It is also the prototype for the modern autoclave. She also invented a still called the tribikos, which may have been the first device for distillation. Once, while experimenting with sulfur vapor, she synthesized a metal alloy coated with black sulfide, a compound still known as Mary's Black.


Hypatia of Alexandria (370? - 415 AD) was the daughter of Theon, who was considered one of the most educated men in Alexandria, Egypt. Theon raised Hypatia in a world of education. Most historians now recognize Hypatia not only as a mathematician and scientist, but also as a philosopher. Today she is known only through her letters because all of her work was destroyed when the Great Library of Alexandia was destroyed. 

Hypatia was known more for the work she did in mathematics than in astronomy, primarily for her work on the ideas of conic sections introduced by Apollonius. She edited the work On the Conics of Apollonius, which divided cones into different parts by a plane. This concept developed the ideas of hyperbolas, parabolas, and ellipses. With Hypatia's work on this important book, she made the concepts easier to understand, thus making the work survive through many centuries. Hypatia was the first woman to have such a profound impact on the survival of early thought in mathematics.

Hypatia's life ended tragically at the hands of a Christian mob, however her life's work remained. Later, Descartes, Newton, and Leibniz expanded on her work. Hypatia made extraordinary accomplishments for a woman in her time. Philosophers considered her a woman of great knowledge and an excellent teacher.

These are just some names on the long list. You can find many more about famous women in all areas of science since ancient times up to nowadays on the websites used in compiling this article: 

4000 years of Women in Science; Biographies of Women Mathematics; Women Philosophers; Women in Science Blog;Cielosur ; Women Warriors and  Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.


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