Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie. Women, Science, and Myth: Gender Beliefs from Antiquity to the Present. Editor: Sue V Rosser, ABC-CLIO, 2008.
Eighteenth-century intellectuals accepted, articulated, expanded, and clarified the idea that men and women had radically different natures. One of the most enigmatic and influential philosophers of this time was Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Rousseau’s mother died shortly after his birth, and he was raised by his aunt. Although Rousseau did not have a formal education, his profligate watchmaker father, Isaac, taught his son to love books, music, and ideas. At first apprenticed to the city notary or registrar and second to a young engraver, Rousseau despised them both. After working for only three years of a five-year contract, Rousseau left the second apprenticeship and worked at various menial jobs (Damrosch 2005). He was befriended by Baronne de Warens, who further exposed him to books and ideas.
In spite of his background, Rousseau became one of the Enlightenment’s most original thinkers. Noted for his political philosophy expressed in The Social Contract, he influenced the American Founding Fathers and the French Revolutionaries. His Confessions provide us with a record of his life through his own eyes and were important in establishing the genre of autobiography. His own personal life was chaotic and his recollections of it, written much after the fact, reflect his own obsessions and fears. His views concerning women are somewhat contradictory. While he put women on a pedestal to be worshipped, his view as to their place in society was inimical to their success in intellectual pursuits. Rousseau was a mass of contradictions. In his book on education, Émile, he stated that children should be allowed to develop according to their natural abilities. But he put his own children in a foundling home as soon as they were born. While making an inspired case for social equality, he formed close friendships with aristocrats and endorsed female subservience.
Rousseau wrote in Émile that “a perfect woman and a perfect man ought not to resemble each other in mind any more than in looks” (Rousseau 1979, 358). It is the nature of man and woman to complement each other with man being the strong, rational partner and woman the weak, sensuous one. Going against nature would be futile. “Boys seek movement and noise: drums, boots, little carriages. Girls prefer what presents itself to sight and is useful for ornamentation: mirrors, jewels, dresses, particularly dolls. The doll is the special entertainment of this sex. This is evidently its taste, determined by its purpose” (Rousseau 1979, 367). The difference in temperament should dictate the kind of education that each receives. “Once it is demonstrated that man and woman are not and ought not to be constituted in the same way in either character or temperament, it follows that they ought not to have the same education” (Rousseau 1979, 363). Rousseau wrote that a girl’s education should provide her with the skills that would make her an asset to a man. Women should please and be useful to men and make themselves loved and esteemed by them. They should educate boys when they are young and take care of them when grown up. They should advise, console, and render men’s lives easy and agreeable (Rousseau 1979, 365). This view of women was shared by many 18th-century intellectuals, but not by Mary Wollstonecraft, who had an entirely different view of the capabilities of women.
Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797)
Wollstonecraft in her Vindication of the Rights of Woman complained that men were not content with being physically superior to women but encouraged them to pursue the trivial. When women complied, the men whom they sought to please were upset because they appeared shallow and uninteresting. In a culture such as this one, it was difficult for women who wanted to engage in scientific pursuits to find ways to do so. In spite of the effort involved, some women defied the stereotype of woman as a frivolous creature without the interest or the ability to pursue difficult science.
Wollstonecraft had a miserable childhood with a father who drank too much and who beat his wife. Mary, the second of seven children, was self-educated except for a short stay at a day school in Yorkshire. Her tyrannical father had a difficult time supporting his family at farming, and they moved many times hoping to find success. In 1778 Mary took a position as a companion to a Miss Dawson in Bath. After two years in this job, she shared quarters with her childhood friend, Fanny Blood. After Mary’s sister Eliza left her husband and child because of an unhappy marriage, she moved in with Mary and Fanny. The three women established a school at Newington Green. Although the school failed, Mary’s experiences there formed the basis for the educational theories espoused in Thoughts on the Education of Daughters (1787) (Flexner 1972).
Wollstonecraft’s friend Fanny Blood married, became pregnant, and moved to Lisbon, and Wollstonecraft went to Lisbon to assist her. However, both Fanny and her child died, and Wollstonecraft returned to England. She accepted a job as a governess in Ireland, where she wrote a novel, Mary, a Fiction. After she was dismissed from her position, she decided to pursue a literary vocation. Among her many writings was her Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), a radical work replying to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. In 1792, she published the even more radical feminist tract, A Vindication of the Rights of Women—a work that had a profound effect on the education of women. Enamored with the French Revolution, she went to France in 1792, where she met with other English supporters of the Revolution, including Tom Paine. In 1793 she published An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, the same year that she began an affair with a former officer in the American Revolutionary Army, Gilbert Imlay. This relationship was a disaster. Imlay abandoned her to care for their child, Fanny, who was born in 1794. Upon discovering Imlay’s infidelity Wollstonecraft twice attempted suicide. She worked for the publisher Joseph Johnson, for whom she had previously worked, for a second time in 1796 in London, where she met William Godwin, whom she married after she became pregnant. Ten days after the birth of their daughter Mary (later Mary Shelley), she died of puerperal fever (Flexner 1972).
Wollstonecraft’s arguments in the Vindication of the Rights of Women challenged Rousseau’s ideas on female intellectual inferiority and claimed that women should have opportunities for equal education, employment (for single women), and an open relationship with men. As a polemicist, she focused the attention of her society on social and sexual inequalities; however, most people looked with horror at her ideas.
Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
In the 18th century, most girls were educated at home, but a smaller group attended boarding schools. Many of these schools stressed ladylike accomplishments such as drawing, music, and embroidery, whereas others included modern and classical languages. Science, however, was largely ignored in the curriculum. Two of the three influential writers on contemporary education (Hannah More and John Burton) did not include science when they discussed curricula. The third writer, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, in his book A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding-Schools (1797) included science and mathematics within the curriculum. He considered zoology, botany, chemistry, applied science, mathematics, and shorthand suitable subjects for young women to study (Ogilvie 1986).
Erasmus Darwin was a doctor by profession (George III tried to convince him to become his personal physician) and a scientific revolutionary, developing a concept of biological evolution 50 years before publication of On the Origin of Species by his grandson. He was also a social revolutionary, supporting both the American (he was a good friend of Benjamin Franklin) and French revolutions. During his lifetime he gained fame as a poet. A group of his friends including some of the more interesting people in England christened themselves the Lunar Society of Birmingham and met once a month during the time of the full moon. This group expanded and was influential in Darwin’s life (King-Hele 1977).
Darwin’s first wife was Mary Howard. After many years of ill health and a marriage of 13 years, she died leaving three sons, Charles, Erasmus, and Robert. Alcoholism was a factor in her death. After Mary’s death Darwin had a liaison with a Miss Parker who bore him two daughters, Susan (b. 1772) and Mary (b. 1774). The two girls spent their childhood in Darwin’s house and were treated like his children born in wedlock. He married Elizabeth Pole in 1781, who had three children of her own plus the illegitimate son of her dead husband. Erasmus and Elizabeth had six children together. With this large family it is not surprising that Erasmus Darwin was interested in educational reform (King-Hele 1977).
Unhappy with traditional education, Darwin decided to set up two of his 14 children (Susan and Mary Parker) in a school of their own where they could try out some of his ideas on education. In 1793, Darwin’s friend Sir Brooke Boothby offered him a house at Ashbourne, 15 miles northwest of Derby. Darwin bought the house, which had previously been a pub, and converted it into a “ladies’ seminary.” The school opened in 1794. The first pupils in the school were his own children and the children of his friends. Before long, the school had 30 pupils and had gained a good reputation. Darwin’s little book A Plan for the Conduct of Female Education in Boarding-Schools was written at the request of Susan and Mary when they set up the school. He opposed the idea that girls were unable to master difficult subjects. He begins the book by highlighting the importance of physical education for girls. Exercise and air should be emphasized; music and dancing are stressed too much in the usual seminary curriculum. Modern languages, not Latin and Greek, and the sciences should be a part of the program. His reforms covered most aspects of life in the school. This school was a success and represented an early step toward sexual equality. Although many of the leading families in the Midlands sent their children to Ashbourne, his innovations were not widely accepted elsewhere. Only two schools, Margaret Bryan’s school at Blackheath and Mrs. Florian’s at Epping Forest, followed his program (King-Hele 1977).
Women were increasingly involved in the scientific enterprise during the 18th century. Their participation covered a variety of fields, but few of them are well known. For example, the French anatomist, Marie Catherine Biheron (1719-1786) turned her artistic skills to preparing anatomical models from wax. The models were so realistic that a contemporary mentioned that all that they lacked was the odor of the original. Her models were used by midwives to teach their students. Another woman, Italian anatomist Anna Morandi Manzolini (1716-1774), was also an expert in making wax models. A skilled craftsperson, she did careful dissections that resulted in anatomical discoveries, including the termination of the oblique muscle of the eye.
An expert in the Linnean sytem, Jane Colden (1724-1766) was an American botanist whose work involved classification and cataloging of plants. She made large collections of plant specimens and exchanged them with correspondents. French illustrator Marie Anne Pierrette Paulze (1758-1836) was the wife of the chemist Antoine Laurent Lavoisier who used her artistic skills to make sketches of experiments and experimental apparatuses. She drew the diagrams for Lavoisier’s treatise The Elements of Chemistry (1789) and her illustrations are scattered throughout his laboratory notebooks. She translated Richard Kirwan’s work Essay on Phlogiston (1787) along with a commentary by her husband. After Antoine Lavoisier was executed, she married the physicist Sir Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford. The marriage was not a success and the couple separated. German astronomer Maria Margaretha Winkelmann Kirch (1670-1720) was the wife of Gottfried Kirch. Marrying Kirch increased her chance to pursue her astronomical interests as her husband’s assistant. The couple’s children, Christfried (1694-1740), Christine (ca. 1696-1782), and Margaretha (b. ca. 1700) became astronomers as well (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000). Scientific didactic writings were common during this century. For example, Priscilla (Bell) Wakefield (1751-1832) was a British writer for children on botany and natural history. In her botany book Wakefield used the correspondence between two teenage sisters to introduce children and young people to botany. She explained the Linnean classification system and presented basic essentials of plant morphology. Probably the most important didactic writing on natural philosophy was written by Jane Haldimand Marcet (1769-1858). With the encouragement of her physician husband, Alexander Marcet, she was able to indulge the taste for popular science that had developed during the 18th century. Her Conversations on Chemistry (1809) was enthusiastically received and was followed by other “Conversations” books. Michael Faraday (1791-1867) praised Conversations on Chemistry throughout his life and claimed that it introduced him to electrochemistry. It is evident that 18th-century women were delving into many branches of science. Maria Agnesi was one of the more important and better-known examples (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799)
Maria Agnesi was a child prodigy whose father encouraged his gifted daughter in her intellectual pursuits. By the age of five she spoke French fluently and had an excellent command of Latin by age nine. When she was 11, her competence in Italian, Latin, French, Greek, Hebrew, German, and Spanish earned her the title of the “Seven-Tongued Orator.” She gained a reputation as a scholar and debater, with disputations ranging over a wide subject area including logic, physics, mineralogy, chemistry, botany, zoology, and ontology. Her father took advantage of every opportunity to show off his brilliant daughter by inviting groups of people to their home for performances by Maria. In 1738, at one of these events, she defended 190 theses as a finale for her studies. A compilation of these arguments, published as the Propositiones philosophicae, did not contain any of her purely mathematical ideas. However, other documents indicate that she had an early interest in mathematics and that by the time she was 14 she was solving difficult problems in ballistics and geometry (The Contest for Knowledge, 2005).
Agnesi’s physical and mental health suffered from the strain of always needing to appear perfect to her father. She pursued her studies with an obsessive zeal and in 1730 contracted a stubborn illness that her physicians blamed on an overabundance of study and a sedentary life. The prescribed treatment, dancing and horseback riding, was unsuccessful because she was unable to pursue even these activities with moderation. After the publication of Propositiones philosophicae (1738), she shocked her father and teachers by announcing that she planned to enter a convent. Her distressed father convinced her to reconsider. She promised him that she would not enter the order if he would agree to three conditions: she must be permitted to dress simply and modestly, to go to church whenever she wanted, and to abandon secular activities such as dancing and the theater (Frisi 1979).
No longer burdened with social obligations, Agnesi began a work on an integrated discussion of algebra and analysis, emphasizing the mathematical concepts that were new to her day. The resulting work was the two-volume Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù, dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who responded by sending her a diamond ring and a letter in a crystal case. She also received laudatory letters from scientists and mathematicians and was even praised by Pope Benedict XIV. He sent her a gold medal and a wreath containing precious stones set in gold. Even more unusual was her appointment, at Benedict’s request, to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna. Although she never taught at Bologna, Agnesi accepted the position as an honorary one (Anzoletti 1900; Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
The praise that she received for this book would seem to have presaged a sterling career for this woman mathematician. However, her physical and mental health began to decline again and she turned away from mathematics and became even more involved with the Church. She reported that the doctors had forbidden her to study because of a persistent headache. Rather than pursuing mathematics, she spent much of her time working at the Parish hospital. When she was at home she separated herself from the rest of her large family, having persuaded her father to give her rooms in a remote part of the house. After her father’s death in 1752, Agnesi increased her isolation from the world, refusing to correspond with or visit men from the academic world. Her life became completely focused on the Church. She gradually gave away her inheritance to the poor, including the ring given to her by Maria Theresa. When her own resources were exhausted she begged money from others to help the indigent. In 1783 she founded the Opera Pia Trivulzi, a charitable home for the aged in Milan and lived there for the rest of her life as its director. Shortly before her death she became obsessed with the state of her soul, worrying that in senility she might forget to say her prayers (Anzoletti 1900; Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
Agnesi clearly had the aptitude for great achievements in mathematics. Her personal demons interfered with her attaining this promise. Her major mathematical publication, the Instituzioni analitiche, was written to provide a handy compilation for students, and its merit was recognized universally. Although it has sometimes been said that this book contained many new ideas, most critics suppose that while some of her methods were original, the work contains no original discoveries. Even the so-called Witch of Agnesi, the cubic curve with an equation of x2y = a2 (a – y) usually credited to Agnesi, had actually been formulated by Pierre de Fermat (1601-1665) and the name versiera (meaning “versed sine curve,” but also the Italian for witch) had been used for it by Guido Grandi in 1703. Maria Agnesi’s reputation for brilliance convinced her contemporaries that women were capable of abstract thought (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711-1778)
Like Maria Agnesi, Italian anatomist and natural philosopher Laura Bassi was a child prodigy. Bassi, too, was well educated by tutors and paraded before Italian intellectuals, family, and friends to show her mastery of the traditional scholastic disputational form. She became a popular curiosity, discussing and debating philosophical questions. Academic scientists were convinced by semipublic displays of her skills (some involving scientific experiments) to admit her to the Academy of Science (March 20, 1732). As did Agnesi, she benefited from Pope Benedict’s patronage. While still Cardinal Lambertini, he arranged for her a public disputation in the Hall of the Elders. After her successful performance, Lambertini informed her that she would be eligible for a doctoral degree and a professorship at the university. She was awarded a doctorate after a second formal degree examination. The third disputation resulted in a professorship in philosophy, a handsome honorarium of 100 scudi annually, and a medal with her portrait and a motto. Later, Agnesi was awarded an honorary chair in mathematics even though she lacked a degree (Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
On February 6, 1738, Bassi married Giuseppe Verati, a young physician. The couple had at least eight children (some sources say 12) and, as did Agnesi, Bassi suffered from poor health throughout much of her life.
Laura Bassi was important to the scientific culture of Enlightenment Italy; however, few of her works have survived. She published only four works during her lifetime and they tell us little about her experimental and pedagogical activities. Paula Findlen cites an additional work published posthumously that places Bassi as a centerpiece linking the university, the salon, and the urban patricians (Findlen 1991). Since the Bolognese professors hesitated to allow a woman to give regular lectures at the university, she did most of her experiments and teaching at home. Her family responsibilities also made this necessary. Supplying the apparatuses herself, she offered daily, well-attended classes in experimental physics. Charles de Brosses (1709-1777) and Joseph-Jérome Le Française de Lalande (1732-1807) attended her classes when they visited from France. According to de Brosses, she occasionally presented public lectures wearing her robe and ermine mantle.
Bassi had every advantage in her early life. She was brilliant, came from a wealthy family that provided her with the best possible education, and enjoyed the patronage of Cardinal Lambertini. However, even with this auspicious beginning, Bassi’s letters imply that she encountered numerous professional obstacles because of her sex. One incident involved the nomination of 20 pensionari each year to give dissertations. Although Bassi was not selected, she devised a solution whereby she, as a member of the university, was selected as a supernumerary member.
Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier De Breteuil, Marquise Du Châtelet (1706-1749)
Émilie du Châtelet at first glance might have appeared to be the kind of frivolous woman about whom both Rousseau and Wollstonecraft complained. However, in spite of her reputation among some circles as spoiled and self-indulgent, she was intelligent, insightful, and diligent. She was important in French intellectual history as both a popularizer and translator of Newton. Her role in the integration of Newtonian and Leibnizian ideas in dynamics is significant. Like Agnesi and Bassi, Émilie, the youngest child of Louis-Nicolas Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, was surrounded by the best available governesses and tutors. Her marriage to Florent-Claude, marquis du Châtelet, was turbulent. After the birth of her third and last child by du Châtelet when she was 27 years old, Emilie began to study mathematics seriously. She became reacquainted with Voltaire, who had been a guest in her family’s household when she was a child, and her mathematical interests were tweaked again. After spending time in England, Voltaire returned to France saturated with the physics of Newton and the philosophy of John Locke. Official France was incensed by the ideas expressed in his newly completed Lettres philosophiques (1733) and banned the work. Madame du Châtelet not only shared Voltaire’s interest in science but was able to provide him with a retreat from hostile officials. She and Voltaire retired to the tolerant Marquis du Châtelet’s estate at Cirey. Since the marquis was often away, he allowed Voltaire to manage his estate in his absence. Occasionally, all three of them were in residence at the same time. Numerous petty intrigues, lawsuits, brilliant fêtes, and dramatic productions characterized Émilie’s 16 years at Cirey. Behind all of the frivolity, however, was a background of study and creativity (Zinsser 2006; Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
The affection between Voltaire and du Châtelet remained after their physical relationship ended. They each fell in love with someone else. Émilie became pregnant by a young officer, Jean-François, marquis de Saint-Lambert, and she and Voltaire conspired to get the Marquis du Châtelet to visit Cirey. When he departed three weeks later he was convinced that he was to be a father again. She spent her confinement in the palace of Stanislas I, former king of Poland, at Lunéville where she worked frantically to complete her translation of Newton’s Principia begun in 1744. Complications occurred after the baby’s birth and Mme. du Châtelet died. The baby died a few days later.
Although physics and mathematics were her major intellectual interests, du Châtelet shared Voltaire’s interests in metaphysics and ethics. In the first half of the 18th century, thinkers considered the systems of Leibniz and Newton incompatible. Voltaire had introduced her to Newtonian thought. While she remained impressed with Newton’s analyses, she was less than satisfied with his failure to relate theories in physics and metaphysics. After meeting Samuel König, a disciple of Leibniz’s interpreter Christian von Woff (1679-1754), she accepted his suggestion that agreeing with Leibnizian metaphysics did not preclude accepting Newtonian physical theories if one postulated that these theories were only involved with the phenomena. This realization led Mme. du Châtelet to accept a compromise between the two systems. She published this compromise in a textbook for her son, the Institutions de physique, published anonymously in 1740. König and du Châtelet quarreled over this book, with König complaining that she had merely published a collection of his essays. Du Châtelet’s appeal to the secretary general of the Académie des Sciences was futile. William H. Barber examined the question of the originality of this book and concluded that although the first chapters were rewritten after her conversion to Leibnizianism, she had not plagiarized König’s works (Besterman 1969).
Before du Châtelet became involved in the Newton-Leibniz debate, she produced an essay on the nature of fire in response to a contest announced by the Académie des Sciences on that subject. Voltaire had arranged for a small chemistry laboratory to be built at Cirey so that he could do research for the prize. He was unaware that du Châtelet was also using the laboratory and entering the competition. Neither won the prize but Voltaire arranged for their essays to be published with those of the winners in 1739. By the time of publication, du Châtelet had modified her Newtonian ideas with Leibnizian ones. Although she petitioned the Academy to published a revised version, it refused, allowing her, however, to add a series of errata that reflected her new views. A revised version was published in 1744.
Du Châtelet’s work represents a solid contribution to the history of science. Her most important contributions were her translation of the Principia and the integration of Newtonian and Leibnizian mechanics (Besterman 1969).
Catherine Littlefield Greene (1755-1814)
Catherine Littlefield Greene is best known as a patron of inventor Eli Whitney. She may have provided design assistance to him, but the extent and nature of her contributions are not clear. Rhode Island-born Catherine was the third of five children of John and Phebe (Ray) Littlefield. Catherine married Nathanael Greene, who became a general under George Washington in 1774. She accompanied her husband during most of his campaigns including the Valley Forge winter of 1777-1778. Three of their five children were born during the Revolutionary War years. General Greene was rewarded for his service in the war with an estate on the Georgia side of the Savannah River. The family settled on a plantation on this estate, but Greene died less than a year after the move, leaving his wife with debts and five young children. Her husband was a close friend of the Marquis de Lafayette, and the marquis took their oldest son to Paris for his education.
Greene met Eli Whitney through Phineas Miller, formerly the children’s tutor who became the manager of the plantation. Whitney was a recent Yale graduate and Miller had recruited him as a tutor for a neighboring family. This position fell through, but Catherine Greene asked him to stay on to devise a machine that would strip the seeds from short-staple cotton. This is the stage where the record becomes murky. Was Greene merely a patron and Whitney’s muse, or did she, as is sometimes reported, invent the cotton gin herself? If the latter is correct, then she would have been one of the most important inventors of the 18th century. The reports that she is the inventor or the co-inventor of the cotton gin cannot be confirmed. Whitney did not credit Greene with the invention, but he did pay her royalties from her patent. These facts do not prove that her help went beyond suggestions. Autumn Stanley summarizes the three approaches to Greene’s contributions to the invention of the cotton gin. The first view insists that Greene was the actual inventor and Whitney merely her model maker; the second that he was the actual inventor, but she solved a crucial problem with the first model; and finally that the story of Greene as the inventor is just fantasy. She concludes that we would not be correct in replacing Eli Whitney’s name with Catherine Greene’s as the inventor. Nevertheless, she probably did make the intellectual leap that caused Whitney to replace the traditional brushes with a bristled brush. Without her help, the traditional brushes would have continued to become hopelessly clogged and the resulting gin would not have been useful. Although there is some evidence for all of these positions, there may never be a definitive answer (Stanley 1995).
During the time that Whitney and Greene were working on the invention, Greene’s eldest son, who had just returned from France, drowned in the Savannah River. Still, as soon as Whitney had finished a working model (1793), Greene publicized it among her neighbors. Before Whitney and his partner Phineas Miller could secure a patent and begin large-scale production, copies of the machine had already begun to appear. The patent litigation continued for over 10 years, and Greene committed all of her resources to the struggle. Eventually Whitney was able to reestablish title to the invention, but he did not profit from it.
Catherine Greene married Phineas Miller in 1796, but legal expenses had forced them to sell the plantation. They moved to another plantation on the Greene estate. Phineas Miller died of a fever in 1803 and Catherine also died of a fever in 1814 (Stanley 1995; Ogilvie and Harvey 2000).
Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848)
Caroline Herschel was born in Hanover, Germany, but moved to England to work with her organist and orchestra leader brother, William, as a vocal soloist. Caroline’s father, Isaac, was an oboist with the Hanoverian Foot Guards. Although he lacked formal schooling himself, Isaac stressed the importance of education to his six children. Her mother, on the other hand, saw no advantage in education. Although she grudgingly accepted the fact that the four boys could receive an education, she was adamantly opposed to giving the same advantages to her two daughters. The older daughter (23 years older than Caroline) was content with her mother’s values. To her mother’s dismay, Caroline was more interested in joining the lively discussion of ideas by Isaac and her brothers than in honing her skills in embroidery and cooking. An admirer of astronomy, her father introduced her to the night skies.
From 1757 to 1760 Isaac Herschel was away from home with the Hanoverian army fighting the French. During this time Caroline’s brother William emigrated to England to pursue a career in music. Left under the tutelage of her mother, Caroline was miserable. She spent much of her time knitting stockings for her brothers and father and writing letters for her illiterate mother. She also wrote letters for soldiers’ wives. When Isaac Herschel returned in 1760 his health was broken; he died in 1767. William, her favorite brother, had become an organist and an orchestra leader in Bath. After hearing of Caroline’s plight (she was treated as an unpaid servant by her mother and older brother), he brought her to England to train as a professional singer. Caroline left Hanover for England in 1772 (Ogilvie 1986).
England was a disappointment to Caroline, largely because William had little time to devote to her. Her English was almost nonexistent and she was dependent on her brother for everything. He served as her tutor in English, singing, arithmetic, and bookkeeping. One of her favorite occupations was to relax with William and talk about astronomy. Caroline had William’s undivided attention at their 7:00 a.m. breakfast. He gave her lessons in mathematics, “Little Lessons for Lina.” They progressed through algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. Caroline acquired sufficient skill in spherical trigonometry to put it to practical use but showed no interest in progressing further into abstract mathematics.
William’s hobby, astronomy, occupied increasing amounts of his time. Interested in the little-studied stellar regions, he needed to equip himself with a proper telescope. He required Caroline’s help in grinding and polishing mirrors, copying catalogues and tables, and providing assistance in a variety of tasks. She was not altogether pleased with these unasked-for jobs, which stole time from her music. The erstwhile musician, William Herschel, was catapulted into fame when he discovered what he first thought was a new comet. This “comet” turned out to be the seventh planet from the sun. Herschel first named the body Georgium sidus after George III of England, but it is now known as Uranus. This discovery netted him a stipend of 200 pounds a year, enabling him to give up his music; Caroline’s short career as an oratorio singer also ended with the discovery of Uranus.
Her musical career at an end and encouraged by William, Caroline became more involved in astronomy. Using a telescope provided by William, Caroline swept the heavens looking for comets. She discovered three new nebulae in 1783. William provided her with a new telescope, her “Newtonian small sweeper,” as a reward for her diligence. When William was home, Caroline had little opportunity to use her new telescope for his demands superseded her own work. She noted that she could not expect to find comets when she was sitting by his side recording his observations or running to the clock. Comets were not to be found in the part of the sky where she swept.
William occasionally was away from home, and it was at these times that Caroline had time to work on her own observations. She discovered eight comets over the period 1786-1797. She became popular with the astronomical community and her growing fame resulted in a salary of 50 pounds per year from the king in 1787 for her work as William’s assistant.
Caroline Herschel’s world was turned upside down in 1788 when William married Mary Pitt. She apparently wrote disparaging comments about Mary in her journal that she later regretted and destroyed all of the entries from this period.
Caroline Herschel’s qualities of perseverance, accuracy, and attention to detail bore fruit when she was asked to update the star catalogue of the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed (1646-1719). Flamsteed’s catalogue was difficult to use because the original observations were published in a volume separate from the catalogue. William Herschel had discovered numerous discrepancies between the catalogue and his own observations. Although he needed a cross-index to trace these differences, he was unwilling to devote the necessary time to the project. He asked Caroline to take on the grueling task of providing this index, which was published by the Royal Society in 1798. It contained an index to every observation of every star noted by Flam-steed. This publication included a list of over 560 stars that were not in the original catalogue as well as an enumeration of errata.
After years of failing health, William Herschel died in 1822. Concerned that England without William would be insufferable, Caroline decided to return to her native Hanover, a decision that she immediately regretted for she found that she had more friends in England than in Germany. John Herschel, William’s son, was the only person who could compete with William for Caroline’s affections. Caroline took a great interest in John’s career as he progressed in astronomy, physics, and chemistry. She looked forward to his letters and visits from England and compiled a new catalogue of nebulae for his use. Arranged in zones, it amassed material from William’s multivolume “Book of Sweeps” and “Catalogue of 2,500 Nebulae.” Although the catalogue was indispensable to John’s investigations, it was never published. The Royal Astronomical Society rewarded her for this work with a gold medal in 1828.
Caroline Herschel became a legend among her scientific contemporaries. Eminent scientists felt compelled to visit her when they were in Hanover. She and Mary Somerville became the first women to be awarded honorary memberships in the Royal Society. She was elected to membership in the Royal Irish Academy in 1838 and received a gold medal for her accomplishments in science from the King of Prussia. Herschel lived to the age of 97 years and 10 months and was buried with a lock of her beloved William’s hair (Herschel 1876; Lubbock 1933; Ogilvie and Harvey 2000; Hoskin 2003).
Herschel made important contributions to observational astronomy, including the discovery of eight comets (five of which can be properly credited to her), and located several new nebulae and star clusters. Her contributions also included skilled, accurate transcription and reduction of astronomical data.
Mary Fairfax Greig Somerville (1780-1872)
Mary Fairfax, the fifth of seven children of Vice Admiral Sir William Fairfax and his second wife, Margaret Charters, was one of the most important women scientists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She spent her early childhood in a seaport town, Burntisland, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. Perhaps her later curiosity about the natural world was spawned during this time when little attention was given to her education, and she spent much of her time freely exploring and roaming around the countryside. This idyllic existence did not last past her ninth year. When her vice admiral father returned to Scotland after one of his frequent long absences for sea duty, he was appalled by his daughter’s ignorance. She was unable to write and read badly with a strong Scots accent. His first remedy was a forced reading program; however, he concluded that Mary needed more structured instruction and sent her to Miss Primrose’s fashionable boarding school at Musselburgh. Utterly miserable during that year, she was made to wear a contraption that included steel stays so that she would be forced to sit up straight at her desk. According to Mary, she successfully avoided learning during that year. The next year, Mary’s mother rented a small apartment for the winter in Edinburgh where Mary attended a writing school to improve her penmanship and learn basic arithmetic. By the time she returned to Burntisland she had acquired a taste for knowledge and enjoyed reading and studying French. She even taught herself some Greek and Latin. She also engaged in the accepted feminine accomplishments such as practicing the pianoforte, painting, doing needlework, cooking, and reading poetry. Her uncle, the clergyman and historian Thomas Somerville, was one of the few people who approved of her intellectual interests, even going so far as to read Virgil with her.
When 14-year-old Mary was reading a “lady’s magazine” that included pictures of fashionable dresses as well as charades and puzzles, she encountered a problem containing x‘s and y‘s. When she inquired about their meaning, she was told that they were algebraic symbols. This different form of mathematics fascinated her, as did geometry. After overhearing her drawing teacher, Alexander Nasmyth, telling two women that to learn about perspective as well as astronomy and the mechanical sciences it was important to study Euclid’s Elements, she was able to acquire copies of Elements and Bonnycastle’s Algebra from her younger brother Henry’s tutor. Mary’s father, however, found algebra and geometry improper studies for a young woman and forbade her to study mathematics, forcing her to proceed in secret.
Mary Fairfax married Samuel Greig, a captain in the Russian navy and a cousin on her mother’s side, who had a low opinion of the intellectual capabilities of women. Although Mary was unable to continue her mathematical studies during her three-year marriage, Captain Greig died leaving Mary with two small sons, one of whom died in infancy. She and her son returned to her parents’ home in Edinburgh. Here the young widow became popular in intellectual circles, becoming friends with the liberal statesman and educational reformer, Henry Brougham (1778-1868); the scientist, John Playfair (1748-1810); and the author of the Waverley novels, Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). During this time, she was tutored in mathematics by William Wallace, who later became professor of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh. She also struggled through Newton’s Principia.
Her second marriage to her first cousin, William Somerville, was much more successful. Her army doctor husband approved of education for women and supported Mary in her mathematical and scientific work. In 1816 William was appointed to the army medical board and the couple moved to London. Mary flourished in this energizing intellectual and social climate. The Somervilles became popular hosts, associating with such scientists as John Herschel (1792-1871), Thomas Young (1773-1829), Roderick Murchison (1792-1871), Charles Babbage (1791-1871), and William Wollaston (1766-1828). During a tour of Europe in 1817 she met several other important scientists including Dominique Arago (1786-1835), Jean Baptiste Biot (1774-1862), Georges Cuvier (1769-1832), Joseph Gay-Lussac (1778-1850), Pierre Simon, Marquis de Laplace (1749-1827), and Augustin de Candolle (1778-1841).
It is amazing that Mary Somerville found the time to write, read, and experiment because of her varied domestic and social duties. As a mother of six, two by her first husband and four by the second, she was constantly involved in their care. Only one son, Woronzow Greig, and two daughters, Martha and Mary Somerville, survived to maturity. As was befitting a wife, when Mary’s physician husband accepted a new post at the Royal Hospital in Chelsea, Mary followed him to this less convenient location on the outskirts of London. She found time to attend the theater and the opera and gave numerous dinner parties. In spite of her hectic life, she produced a series of works on astronomy, physics, mathematics, chemistry, and geography that earned her the respect of her contemporary scientists.
Mary was self-conscious about her scientific abilities. Her first work was presented to the Royal Society by her husband in 1826 and published in the Philosophical Transactions. Even though this work “On the Magnetizing Power of the More Refrangible Solar Rays” was well received, she was diffident when Henry Brougham asked her to provide an English version of Laplace’s Mécanique céleste for the library of his Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. The resulting The Mechanism of the Heavens (1831) was an immediate success and served as a textbook for almost 100 years. Its reception encouraged her to publish other works of scientific exposition including On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) and an article on comets in the Quarterly Review (December 1835), Physical Geography (1848), and On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1869). She also wrote two more papers on the results of her experiments with light rays (1836 and 1845).
The Somervilles moved to Italy in 1838 for William Somerville’s health. Mary outlived most of her friends and relatives—her husband died in 1860 and her son in 1865. She remained active intellectually, and when she was 92 years old in 1872 wrote that although she was very deaf and her memory for ordinary events was failing she was still able to read books on higher algebra for four or five hours and could even solve mathematical problems. She was engrossed in a study of two recent mathematical texts, William Hamilton’s Lectures on Quaternions and Benjamin Peirce’s Linear Associative Algebra, at the time of her death.
In spite of her insistence that she lacked scientific originality, her ability to comprehend and synthesize the work of her contemporaries made her a very important contributor to the scientific enterprise. She made science understandable to both general readers and more advanced students. Somerville’s pleasant personality made her a favorite of her scientific associates, and they gladly critiqued her work and happily supplied her with new information.