Science blog

11 October 2016

Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

It’s Ada Lovelace Day today! Now in its 8th year, this special day aims to raise the profile of women working in science, technology, engineering and maths, but also to create role models to encourage girls to pursue scientific careers. The name giver herself was a prime example of a woman following her inclination for analytical thinking. Ada Lovelace made a name for herself as the first computer programmer at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

But she was not the only woman who contributed to our understanding of science. The list of scientific heroines in history is surprisingly long, but mostly unheard-of. It comprises the well-known names of Marie Curie-Skłodowska, Rosalind Franklin and Florence Nightingale, but did you know the following female scientists?


Beatrix Potter's illustration
Beatrix Potter's illustrations of fungi in 'Wayside and woodland fungi' by W.P.K. Findlay (shelf mark X.329/15466)

Beatrix Potter (1866 – 1943)

The name of Beatrix Potter might be familiar to those who grew up with ‘The Tale of Peter Rabbit’. But besides being a famous author and illustrator of children’s books, she was also a natural scientist. Her love of flora, fauna and landscape, combined with her artistic talent and her ability to closely observe her surroundings, provided the ideal basis for this occupation. However, being a woman, she was rejected to study at the Royal Botanical Gardens. So Beatrix continued to study nature – fungi in particular – on her own and recorded her observations in beautiful drawings and watercolours, ultimately receiving the wide respect she deserved in the field of mycology. We hold a textbook on fungi at the British Library in which a collection of her brilliant illustrations has been used.


Agnes Mary Clerke (1842 – 1907)

Thanks to her parents, Agnes Mary Clerke was educated broadly in scientific subjects and languages, but it was the field of astronomy that became her passion. She started to write about the history of astronomy at the age of 15 and, after having her first important article published in the Edinburgh Review, she was repeatedly asked to contribute to scientific publications. She wrote the main article on astronomy as well as biographies of famous scientists for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She also published books of her own, her best known work being ‘A Popular History of Astronomy during the Nineteenth Century’ (which, of course, we have at the British Library). Although Agnes Mary Clerke was not a practical astronomer herself, she gained the respect of the profession through her interpretation of astronomical research, and by doing so, also introduced astronomy to a wider public.


Sophie Germain's letter
A letter written by Sophie Germain under her pseudonym M. Le Blanc to C.F. Gauss (shelf mark 10902.h.5)

Sophie Germain (1776-1831)

Sophie Germain’s interest in mathematics was sparked at an early age, but in order to be able to study it, she had to overcome her parents’ opposition first and the society’s prejudice against her sex next. The latter she did by assuming the identity of M. Le Blanc, a former student of the Ecole Polytechnique near Paris, and sending the answers to his homework to his professor. She also corresponded with the famous mathematician Carl-Friedrich Gauss under her pseudonym. An impression of their discussions can be obtained through the letters in the British Library’s collection. In both instances, she was eventually unmasked, but was accepted immediately by the two men – and eventually by the whole scientific community – as an equal. Sophie Germain is best known for her progress on the proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem and her work on elasticity which to this day underpins the science of building construction.


Science Fiction by Margaret Cavendish
Margaret Cavendish's science fiction work 'The Blazing World' (shelf mark 8407.h.10) 

Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673)

Back when scientists were still called natural philosophers, Margaret Cavendish established herself as the first English female representative of this profession. She wrote treatises on a variety of subjects, including gender, power, scientific method and philosophy and by doing so helped popularise the scientific revolution. Although she was widely known (and often ridiculed) for her eccentricity, her innovative views added to the scientific discussion of her time. Not only was she one of the first to contest the validity of theological aspects in science, she also argued for the education of women and is claimed to be an early opponent of animal testing. On top of that, she managed to write one of the first examples of science fiction, ‘The Blazing World’, which has been digitised by the British Library and can be read online.


Hildegard von Bingen (1098 – 1179)

The German Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen was what you call a polymath. She was a theologian, philosopher, author, linguist and composer, but also a physician and natural scientist. While most of her non-scientific work was heavily influenced by the visions she is said to have received from a young age onwards, her botanical and medicinal texts are based on observations and experience. You can find a translation of her first book on the treatment of diseases ‘Physica’ at the British Library. Some of the remedies she described in her works might seem far-fetched from a modern scientific point of view, but she also made many accurate observations and is with good reason considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.


These five women achieved extraordinary things through their dedication to further scientific knowledge, even though (or possibly because?) they were women. Let them inspire you to strive for the same. Happy Ada Lovelace Day everyone!

Mandy Kleinsorge, PhD placement student