bioephemera

Today’s Guardian has a very interesting (though long) article by Richard Holmes, author of The Age of Wonder, about the unsung women of science. In the Guardian piece, Holmes shares some of his research for his forthcoming book, The Lost Women of Victorian Science:

[M]y re-examination of the Royal Society archives during this 350th birthday year has thrown new and unexpected light on the lost women of science. I have tracked down a series of letters, documents and rare publications that begin to fit together to suggest a very different network of support and understanding between the sexes. It emerges that women had a far more fruitful, if sometimes conflicted, relationship with the Royal Society than has previously been supposed.

It is at once evident that they played a significant part in many team projects, working both as colleagues and as assistants (though hitherto only acknowledged in their family capacities as wives, sisters or daughters). More crucially, they pioneered new methods of scientific education, not only for children, but for young adults and general readers. They also played a vital part as translators, illustrators and interpreters and, most particularly, as “scientific popularisers”.

Indeed, the Royal Society archives suggest something so fundamental that it may require a subtle revision of the standard history of science in Britain. This is the previously unsuspected degree to which women were a catalyst in the early discussion of the social role of science. More even than their male colleagues, they had a gift for imagining the human impact of scientific discovery, both exploring and questioning it. Precisely by being excluded from the fellowship of the society, they saw the life of science in a wider world. They raised questions about its duties and its moral responsibilities, its promise and its menace, in ways we can appreciate far more fully today.

Personally, I find these paragraphs both encouraging and discouraging. While it’s a positive step toward a more realistic and accurate perspective on the history of science, one which includes women’s substantive contributions, it’s counterbalanced in my mind by the fact that such newly discovered contributions seem to skew (“more crucially”) towards traditionally female roles – education, providing moral context and social critique, and (most relevant to the science blogging community) “scientific popularisers.” Ahem.

Let me be clear: these are all important roles and contributions. Given the social restrictions on women in past centuries, it’s possible they were the only types of scientific contributions open to (or credited to) women; but alternatively, they may have been the types of contributions women legitimately wanted to make. I’m not going to assume that every lady botanical illustrator of two centuries ago really wanted to be devising advanced mathematical proofs, a la Thomasina Coverly. That’s silly, revisionist speculation.

But it is a little unfortunate that while we (rightly) emphasize the contributions of these women, we’re once again touting the same, “softer” paths along the edges of science that women have been traditionally encouraged to take. Many of the women celebrated in Holmes’ account themselves thought their gender unsuited for the real thing:

For all her gifts, Mary Somerville [a famous science writer] had denied women’s ability to do original science. In Chapter 11 of her Personal Recollections, she had written ruefully: “I was conscious that I had never made a discovery myself, I had no originality. I have perseverance and intelligence, but no genius. That spark from heaven is not granted to [my] sex… whether higher powers may be allotted to us in another state of existence, God knows, original genius in science at least is hopeless in this. At all events it has not yet appeared in the higher branches of science.”

Personally, I’d prefer a few more Thomasina Coverlys! But since we aren’t in Arcadia, bravo to Holmes for uncovering more of the “Lost Women” who helped shape science, and in Holmes’ words,

helped to add a third, fundamental imperative. Science should sow “seeds”. Science should broadcast, should disperse the seeds of knowledge to all and as imaginatively as possible. Science, and the scientific method, should become a new means of general education and enlightenment, not merely for the elite. Until scientific knowledge was explained, explored and widely understood by the population at large, the work of scientists would always be incomplete.

I think we can all support that.

All quotes above from Richard Holmes writing for the Guardian.

P.S. the charming chemistry text that Holmes mentions, Conversations in Chemistry, in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained and illustrated by Experiments (1806) by Jane Marcet – a dialogue between a fictitious female teacher and her clever students – can be read online in a number of locations. This 1824 version on Google Books is particularly interesting; it’s an American edition prefaced not only by Marcet’s standard apology for her inadequacies and gender, but a male editor’s condescending assessment that while Marcet’s writing is good enough, she isn’t accurate enough. (He doesn’t even give her credit by name). Because, he says, “to youth particularly, by advancing as truths doctrines which have arisen out of a theory not founded on demonstration, we run a chance of inculcating permanent error,” he has annotated the text to “guard the pupil against adopting opinions which he will find either contradicted or merely examined by most chemical writers.”

Whatever, stuffy book-stealing dude! The dialogue is charming, and the steampunky illustrations are a lot of fun. And if I had more time, there is a lot on Google Scholar about Jane Marcet’s books. . .