We’re History: The Chemical Woman

July 1, 2011 - New York, NY

From Chemical Engineering Progress, July 1, 2011, p. 64

By Michal Meyer, Editor-in-Chief of Chemical Heritage magazine

Chemistry was once a glamorous subject that attracted the fashionable set. In early 19th-century London, well-to-do men and women flocked to the Royal Institution for Humphry Davy’s chemistry lectures and demonstrations. Davy, who discovered many elements and invented the miner’s safety lamp, soon became Sir Humphry and a scientific superstar.

One of those who attended these lectures was a married woman in her thirties. Jane Marcet (1769–1858) came from a wealthy England-based Swiss banking family and wed a Swiss doctor living in England. Her family and her husband encouraged female education and, although unusual for the day, Marcet received as good an education as her brothers.

At the time, there were few books on science aimed at a general audience. In the days before steam-powered printing, publishing was an expensive business and only the well-off bought books. England lacked a national education system and many in the lower classes were still illiterate. But education, including in science, was on the minds of many reformers. With encouragement from family and friends, Marcet set out to write a modern chemistry book, one firmly based on the new chemistry of Antoine Lavoisier and his followers.

By today’s standards, Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry (1806) is an odd book. In it, an instructor, Mrs. B, discusses chemistry with two pupils, Emily and Caroline. With its all-female cast, Conversations was aimed squarely at women and girls. As a woman, Marcet followed the common practice of publishing anonymously, although she did admit to her own femaleness in the book’s preface. . . .

Marcet’s lack of a formal scientific education did not restrict her, as it would have later in the century. Much science talk happened around dinner tables, where women were eager participants. Later, when science became a paid profession, conversations on science moved into laboratories, an almost exclusively male preserve.

Conversations was a surprisingly successful book and transcended its gender boundaries. Men and women, girls and boys, read it. Further editions quickly followed, with Marcet meticulously updating her work with the latest discoveries. In 1809, for example, she included Davy’s latest research on the alkali metals. All in all, Conversations gave adults and older children a solid grounding in the chemistry of the day.

The book was quickly pirated in the U.S., there being no international copyright laws at that time. And, since Marcet wrote anonymously, American authors might add appendixes and publish the work under their own names. Only in the twelfth edition did Marcet’s name appear as author.

Conversations went through 16 editions in the U.K. and 23 printings in the U.S. Schools adopted it as a textbook. One book remained in circulation at the New York Public Library until 1912.

When Marcet first published her book, chemistry was still an adjunct to medicine. Marcet’s work helped define chemistry as a subject in its own right. Furthermore, Conversations set one particular young man on a path into science.

In 1810, a bookbinder’s teenage apprentice read the anonymously published book, which sparked in him a desire to learn more. The apprentice went on to attend talks at the Royal Institution, and eventually became Davy’s assistant. The apprentice’s name? Michael Faraday. In true fairy-tale fashion, in 1845 Marcet wrote to the by-then-famous Faraday asking for details on his latest research.

The International Year of Chemistry celebrations of 2011 allow us to appreciate anew the progress of science, and the progress of the people who practice it. Women are often hidden in the history of science, but historically they have played a major role in bringing science to a broader audience. In the early 19th century, when boundaries between physics and chemistry were still in flux, writing for a general audience—choosing what to include, what to exclude—also meant defining chemistry as a discipline.

Marcet never made discoveries, and never had anything named after her. Not surprisingly, she dropped out of history. But she is one member of a reforming group of 19th-century women who believed in the value of education in general, and science in particular. Whereas today we take our formal education systems for granted, back then women like Marcet had to make a case for education, especially for women.

Conversations on Chemistry was a shot in the early 19th-century culture wars about the value of learning and the worth of science. Now if we can only make science glamorous again.

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