The lost women of Enlightenment science

6 years ago

By Patricia Fara


It was a time of explosive new ideas – political revolution, contemplation of the rights of individuals, the rise of scientific enquiry and a broader appreciation for the power of reason. Yet while the names most remembered from the Enlightenment era – Locke, Newton, Voltaire, Kant, Paine – belong to men, there were many women who participated in and influenced the intellectual upheaval of the time, sometimes in subtle ways, by using the only tools at their disposal.

Emilie du Châtelet was one such pioneering woman. She made use of her aristocratic background and connections with the upper echelons of society to involve herself in the philosophical debates of her day – and she used her sharp wit and mathematical aptitude to test the newest ideas in physics and convince her compatriots that Newton’s theory of gravity was right.

Yet du Châtelet was not alone. Meet other daring women of the Enlightenment:

Marie Paulze Lavoisier (1758-1836)

Marie Paulze was only 13 when she married the wealthy French lawyer Antoine Lavoisier, and she immediately started learning English so that she could act as the scientific go-between for his true passion in life – chemistry. Soon she was presiding over one of Paris’s most influential salons, hosting visitors such as Benjamin Franklin and James Watt. Relying on brains rather than beauty, she persuaded financiers to invest in her husband’s ventures. “She is tolerably handsome,” remarked a tobacco tycoon from Virginia, “but from her Manner it would seem that she thinks her forte is the Understanding rather than the Person.”

Lavoisier built his reputation on identifying oxygen, but his wife was the English-speaking expert available to negotiate with Joseph Priestley, who had already discovered the same gas but given it a different name. She was far more than just a mouthpiece: up to speed with all latest theories, she included her own critical commentaries in her published translations of books and articles.

She was also an accomplished artist. While her husband is celebrated for reforming chemistry with his revolutionary textbook, it was her meticulous illustrations that enabled chemists all over the world to replicate his trials.

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

Women can be their own worst enemies. “I am nothing, I have done nothing,” lamented the astronomer Caroline Herschel. This self-abnegation has helped push her into the backwaters of history, yet she was the first woman to discover a comet, and was so well-recognised at the time that King George III rewarded her with a scientific salary.

Even her own mother hampered her career, insisting that she stay at home to wash and clean. Eventually Herschel escaped from family servitude in her native Hanover to join her brother William in England, best known for discovering Uranus. He soon enlisted her to collaborate on his astronomical projects.

Night after night, they recorded telescope observations together, even when it was so cold that the ink froze and the metal mirror cracked. She performed the calculations needed to convert numbers on a dial into locations on a map, and it was thanks to her that Britain’s major star catalogue was brought up to date. Independent of her brother, she identified several new comets and at last allowed herself a rare moment of pique at male oppression. Admitting to the Astronomer Royal that his interest had stimulated her “vanity”, she pointed out that “among gentlemen the commodity is generally styled ambition”.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

Not many female scientists have a ship named after them, but for 20 years the Mary Somerville carried goods between Liverpool, Canton and Calcutta. Its figurehead was copied from the commemorative marble bust that the Fellows of the Royal Society had commissioned for their foyer. Yet although she was celebrated as “the Queen of the Sciences”, the real-life Somerville was not allowed to set foot inside the Society’s hallowed halls: when her article on magnetism and sunlight was published in the Philosophical Transactions, her husband read it out on her behalf.

The first time the word “scientist” appeared in print was in a review of Somerville’s bestseller, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, which consolidated as well as disseminated the latest cutting-edge research. Though excluded from universities, scholarly societies and laboratories, she became Victorian England’s most famous scientific author. The modern edition of her work runs to nine volumes – a massive output that she somehow managed to write while looking after her family. She resented the social pressures preventing women from achieving their full potential. “A man can always command his time under the plea of business,” she observed, but “a woman is not allowed any such excuse”.

Anne Conway (1631-1679)

Gottfried Leibniz went to his grave maintaining that he had beaten his rival Isaac Newton in the race to discover calculus, but he freely acknowledged the influence of an English woman – Anne Conway. He publicly praised her brilliance and commented how closely his views approached her own.

Taking advantage of a wealthy but largely absent husband, Conway converted her remote country mansion into an intellectual powerhouse that attracted some of Britain’s most eminent thinkers. A few turned into semi-permanent house guests, enjoying not only her generous hospitality but also the opportunity to thrash out ideas on the latest scientific topics. Her lifelong confidant (and possibly lover) was the Cambridge philosopher Henry More, and he dedicated a treatise to this female genius who had “not onely outgone all of your own Sexe, but even of that other also.”

A lifelong sufferer from crippling headaches, Conway was cared for by the Oxford brain specialist Thomas Willis, who incorporated her symptoms into his pioneering neurological study. Chronic pain was Conway’s daily nightmare, but also her philosophical inspiration. According to the prevailing Cartesian view, mind and matter operated separately. Yet body and spirit must be one, she argued: if not, why did she feel so miserable when afflicted with a physical problem?

Margaret Cavendish (1623-73)


Rebellious, ambitious and outspoken, Margaret Cavendish is often said to be the first feminist scientist. In book after book, she railed against the constraints that restricted women’s lives. Even so, she accepted Aristotle’s view that women are born different. He held that men are blessed with hot, dry brains – ideal for thinking logically and rationally. Women, on the other hand, are burdened with cold, wet brains – hence all that soggy emotion.

Aristotle also influenced other elements of her philosophy. She advocated an extreme form of atomism, in which the world is composed of four kinds of atoms (for the four Aristotelian elements): square for earth, round for water, long atoms for air and sharp ones for fire.

Cavendish was in a privileged position that enabled her to promote such ideas in her books. She married one of the most powerful men in the land, the Duke of Newcastle, who paid for her work to be published in lavish editions and also delighted in having her preside over their dinner-table, debating with some of Europe’s greatest thinkers of the day.

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

When Sophie Germain’s father found out she was obsessed with mathematics, he confiscated her candles and put out the fire in her bedroom. But after she was discovered one morning fast asleep at her desk, wrapped in blankets and the ink frozen in its pot, he relented.

Banned from entering Paris’s Revolutionary Ecole Polytechnique, Germain assumed the identity of a male student who had left, taking over his lecture notes and submitting work under his name. She was rumbled only when a professor demanded to meet this young scholar whose work had suddenly improved so dramatically. Luckily for her (and for mathematics), he was sufficiently enlightened to encourage her further.

Forced to work at home from books, she became fascinated by number theory. Pretending to be a man, she plucked up the courage to solicit advice from Europe’s leading expert, Carl Gauss (famous for the normal distribution). After three years of correspondence, he was astounded to learn her true gender, and boasted about his young protégée to his friends. A few years later, after extensive research into elasticity and vibrating plates, she became the first woman to win a prize from France’s Royal Academy.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Maria Sibylla Merian was well into her 50s when she set sail for South America. She spent two years studying wildlife in Surinam, and six plants, nine butterflies and two beetles are named after her.

As a child in Germany, Merian was apprenticed to her own father, an artist who taught her all the skills she needed to make full-colour engravings. Later she set up an all-female business producing luxurious flower-painted fabrics. Her first book was about caterpillars, a topic of great economic importance because Germany wanted to cut China out of the market by finding a cheap replacement for silkworms.

Abandoning her husband after 20 years, Merian moved into a religious community, where she studied Latin and entomology. Next she settled in Amsterdam, supporting herself by illustrating scientific textbooks. Eventually, she saved up enough money for her dream trip across the Atlantic.

To recoup her costs, she preserved crocodiles, iguanas and snakes in brandy for sale to rich collectors. A meticulous observer, during her trip she recorded the habits and life cycles of insects, and the classification system she devised is still admired today.




Developed by Avesta Group and powered by Microsoft Azure
Dabran © 2016 All Rights Reserved