Heard but not seen: The lost women of science
Richard Holmes outlines his new book on The Lost Women of Victorian Science, a sequel to his earlier The Age of Wonder (see review on HumanistLife).
Certainly compared with their literary sisters, the scientific women of the 19th century still appear invisible, if not actually non-existent. What female scientific names can be cited to compare with Jane Austen, Fanny Burney, the three Brontë sisters, George Eliot or Harriet Martineau?
Yet my 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.
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]Heard but not seen: The lost women of science,