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Pandrosion: How the most ancient woman mathematician was (almost) lost in history

Written By: JoCee Holladay

Alexandria and the Golden Age of Geometry

Historians who study ancient mathematicians face many challenges. For one, many math textbooks and publications haven’t survived to modern times. Another major challenge that has plagued historians is gender bias in math.

You’ve likely never heard of the great mathematician Pandrosion. She is the most ancient woman mathematician, and because historians just assumed ALL mathematicians were male, she was almost cemented into history as a man. Many textbooks still claim she was a man, and only recently have people began telling her story.

We don’t know many details about Pandrosion’s life. None of her own textbooks, publications, or journals have survived. What we do know of her is that she was a math and philosophy teacher in Alexandria during the 4th century and that at least one person didn’t like her math style.

How do we know this? All the knowledge we have gathered about Pandrosion comes from the writings of Pappus. Pappus was another famous mathematician in ancient Alexandria. He isn’t particularly famous for anything he discovered, but rather, he was a great collector and commentator on the then-current affair of mathematics.

In book three of his eight-book math series, Pappus writes about Pandrosion. He (sarcastically) dedicated his book to her and critiqued her mathematical discoveries and teaching style. Going as far as to claim that Pandrosion didn’t know the difference between a problem and a theorem. Ouch. Pappus wasn’t done there. He also made fun of her proof for calculating cube roots[1] and “fixed” a different proof for finding the geometric mean, a proof that was written by one of Pandrosion’s students. Now, let’s be clear, Pappus wasn’t a sexist jerk; he was just a regular jerk. We know this because he didn’t critique Pandrosion because she was a female mathematician; he critiqued and made fun of almost every other mathematician of that era regardless of gender. What a great use of a book, right? But something is different about how Papus makes fun of Pandrosion – he uses the feminine vocative form of her name, a detail that early translators of Pappus’s work ignored.

When Pappus’s books were being translated from the original ancient Greek into modern languages, the feminine vocative form used to describe Pandrosion was replaced with masculine grammar. This resulted in Pandrosion being known as a male mathematician.

As these initial translations of Pappus’s works were further translated into more languages and published in textbooks, Pandrosion was cemented into modern history as a man.

See for yourself! If you Google something like “Most ancient woman mathematician,” you will see Hypatia of Alexandria fill up the first page of search results. While Hypatia is an incredible mathematician and philosopher from ancient Alexandria, she isn’t the first. Pandrosion came before Hypatia, and unlike Hypatia, Pandrosion appears to be completely missing from the record of women mathematicians.

The effects of bias in mathematics

While we don’t fully understand why the men [2] who translated Pappus’s original Greek writings all chose to change the female descriptors of Pandrosion into male descriptors, we do know that there is a history of gender bias in mathematics [3].

If these translators couldn’t conceive of women mathematicians in current times, it could have been difficult for them to imagine an incredible woman mathematician in ancient times. The translators may have assumed that Pappus made a mistake and opted to “fix” Pappus’s grammar inconsistencies instead of realizing the much simpler solution – that Pandrosion was a woman.

Male until proven female

It took over 300 years for someone to realize that Pandrosion was a woman. In 1988, Pappus’s work was re-translated from the original Greek, and this time, the translators kept the feminine description of Pandrosion. But before she was given her title as the first known woman to make contributions to mathematics, researchers needed to prove that this feminine description was not a typo and that she was a woman—a process that didn’t have to occur when translators thought she was a male mathematician; go figure.

The final confirmation that Pandrosion was a women mathematician comes from intense study of her name:

“The –ion ending is a form of a nickname, much like the –y ending in Gabby for Gabrielle. As a result, Pandrosion’s full name was Pandrosos, which is a feminine name referenced in the Greek mythologies of Pandrosos, the daughter of Cecrops and Aglauros. The name, Pandrosos, means “all dewey,” which also alludes to a feminine name.” [4]

Despite the current acceptance of Pandrosion as a woman, it will take decades more for her reputation to be restored fully. But what’s worse than the personal attack on Pandrosion’s place in history is how this mistake continues the cycle of gender bias in math. If historians continue to assume that ancient mathematicians of ambiguous genders are men, then we will continue to miss many of the great contributions of women mathematicians in the past and artificially decrease the number of women in mathematics and diminish their impact in the history of mathematics. This can in turn dissuade future generations of girls from pursuing a career in mathematics.

While Pandrosion is the first ancient mathematician whose gender was reclaimed, it’s my belief that she won’t be the last. In order to rediscover these ancient women scientists, philosophers, and mathematicians, we need to fight the unconscious bias we have been taught and acknowledge that there have been (and continue to be) many great women in STEM.

[1] Pandrisia’s work was more specifically an approximate solution to doubling the cube.

[2] The translators of Pappus’s original work from Greek who removed the feminine vocative include: Federico Commandino (1585) Latin Translation, Fedrick Hultsch (1878) Latin Translation, Ver Eecke (1982) French translation.

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