Untold lives blog

48 posts categorized "Science"

18 May 2021

Introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Hans Sloane

One day in early August 1735, a woman arrived at the London home of Sir Hans Sloane, letter of introduction in hand.  Social networking etiquette required such a document when approaching a new acquaintance.  And, Elizabeth Blackwell hoped to connect with Sloane, who was linked with numerous networks of knowledge, and acquire his support.  Some 280 years later, that letter is held by the British Library and identified as Sloane MS 4054, f. 90.

Letter written by physician Alexander Stuart introducing Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans SloaneThis letter, written by physician Alexander Stuart, introduced Elizabeth Blackwell to Sir Hans Sloane. Sloane MS 4054, f. 90

One of Sloane’s close colleagues, a Scots-born physician named Alexander Stuart, had written it on Blackwell’s behalf.  But even before stating the reason for her visit, Stuart assured Sloane that 'Mrs. Blackwell' merited his consideration. She was, he wrote, the 'Niece of Sir Wm. Simson, one of the Barons of the Exchequer, whom you know; & first Cousine to My Lady Cook Windford, whom you also know'.  She was, then, a gentlewoman who could be linked to persons familiar to Sloane.

With those salient points covered, Stuart explained why Blackwell wished to see him.  She was working on a project, and Sloane’s endorsement would be of great help.  A 'very ingenious person', Blackwell wanted to draw a set of about 500 plants from the most up-to-date (1721) edition of the Dispensatory of the Royal College of Physicians.  Blackwell also had with her a proposal for the project. In all likelihood, it was similar to those drawn up by persons who were writing books that they wanted to sell by subscription.  Its wording probably resembled the text of an advertisement that ran in the London Evening Post on 9-11 October 1735: 'This Day are publish’d PROPOSALS For PRINTING by SUBSCRIPTION, A Curious Herbal'.

Botanical drawing of a dandelionElizabeth Blackwell’s illustrations include this Dandelion. Plate 1 of Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737). 452.f.1.

Stuart’s letter also noted that the document had space at the bottom for signatures of endorsers – akin, perhaps, to the page that is found in volume one of effectively every copy of A Curious Herbal.  The apothecary Isaac Rand had composed the proposal for Blackwell and, along with the illustrious Dr Richard Mead, had promised to sign it.   Would Sloane also 'be so good as to sign the recommendation'?

Page of Publick Endorsements from A Curious HerbalThis page of Publick Endorsements likely resembled the one that accompanied the proposal that apothecary Isaac Rand wrote for Blackwell. A Curious Herbal (London: Charles Nourse, 1782), vol. 1. 445.h.6.

As it happened, no.  But Sloane would help Blackwell in other ways, which were cited in the dedication that she composed to him – one that was engraved and printed on pages found in various copies of A Curious Herbal.  Likewise, Blackwell would compose dedications to Stuart, Mead, Rand, and six other men who contributed to her undertaking.

Elizabeth Blackwell's dedication to Sloane in A Curious HerbalSloane didn’t sign Blackwell’s recommendation but he helped her in other ways, as noted in this dedication. Joseph Banks’ copy of A Curious Herbal (London: Samuel Harding, 1737), vol. 1, after plate 96. 452.f.1.

What other insights might Stuart’s letter provide into A Curious Herbal and Elizabeth Blackwell?  If nothing else, its references to Blackwell’s uncle and cousin (whom, research indicates, lived in or near London) cast some doubt on claims that she was from Aberdeen.  Without wishing to wound Aberdonian pride, the possibility cannot be discounted.

Janet Stiles Tyson
PhD candidate at Birkbeck, University of London

 

23 March 2021

The search for Franklin in the Barrow Bequest

An intriguing collection of manuscripts known as the Barrow Bequest was acquired by the British Museum in February 1899. The private collection was created by Sir John Barrow (1764–1848) and his son Colonel John Barrow (1808–1898) during their official careers at the Admiralty and as writers and promoters of Arctic exploration.

Sir John Barrow appointed Sir John Franklin to lead the ill-fated expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Less well-known than his father, John Barrow Junior has recently been called the ‘quiet hero of the search for Franklin’ for his efforts in coordinating the search expeditions from 1848 onwards.  Franklin’s two ships – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – were last seen by Europeans on 26 July 1845 near Baffin Bay in Greenland, and later by Inuit near King William Island.  

The Barrow Bequest includes drawings made during a British diplomatic mission to China in 1792–93 and Sir John Barrow’s expedition to southern Africa in 1801–02 (Add MS 35300), as well as the manuscripts of Barrow’s autobiography and other writings. The largest part of the collection, however, relates to Arctic exploration.

The letters, drawings, maps and printed materials collected by John Barrow Junior while he was Keeper of the Records for the Admiralty tell the stories of the early expeditions which embarked for the Arctic in search of Franklin and his missing expedition. Many of the letters from individuals involved in the expeditions are addressed to Barrow, including several from Jane Franklin, who tirelessly promoted and sponsored the missions to discover her husband’s fate.

Add MS 35304 contains records relating to the voyage of HMS North Star, commanded by James Saunders in 1849–50. The North Star was intended as a provision ship for the Franklin search expedition under Sir James Clark Ross.

View of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland]View of Wolstenholme Sound showing the outlet between Baring’s Island and the northern mainland [Greenland], 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 9.

Highlights include five watercolour drawings of Wolstenholme Sound on the north-west coast of Greenland near Baffin Bay. These show a desolate landscape of glaciers and barren islands. Tiny figures explore their surroundings while their ship, the North Star, is locked in the ice. The North Star failed to meet the Ross expedition and returned to England after spending a winter in the ice in what is now named North Star Bay.

View of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, GreenlandView of Wolstenholme Sound showing Wolstenholme Island, Dundas Hill and Baring’s Island, Greenland, 1849-50. Add MS 35304, f. 10.

Another highlight is The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, a handwritten magazine illustrated with watercolour and pen-and-ink drawings which was 'published in winter quarters, Arctic Regions’ between 28 October 1852 and 12 February 1853. The magazine is written largely in the hand of Sherard Osborn, who was in command of HMS Pioneer in the Franklin search expedition under Sir Edward Belcher. It was created for the entertainment of the crew and the volume includes two playbills for the Queens Arctic Theatre printed on board HMS Assistance. The crews abandoned the ships in the summer of 1854 after spending two winters in the ice and failing to find Franklin.

A scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette,A scene from Hamlet in The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette, 1852-53. Add MS 35305, f. 32.

Playbill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance.Playbill for the The Queens Arctic Theatre, 21 Dec 1852, HMS Assistance. Add MS 35305, f. 31v.

The wrecks of Erebus and Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 by Parks Canada in an area that was identified by Inuit. The search for evidence of the Franklin expedition continues to this day.

Catherine Angerson
Curator, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
@BL_ModernMSS

Digital Resources:

The British Library has digitised the ten volumes in partnership with Adam Matthew for Age of Exploration, an online collection of primary sources relating to five centuries of global exploration, trade and colonial expansion.

The following volumes are now available to view in full on our Digitised Manuscripts website:

Vol. I. Drawings by William Alexander and Samuel Daniell [in China, Southeast Asia, South America and southern Africa] (Add MS 35300)

Vol. II. Autograph manuscript of Sir John Barrow’s Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic regions (Add MS 35301)

Vol. III. 'An Autobiographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart. (late of the Admiralty)' (Add MS 35302)

Vol. IV. ‘A Supplementary Chapter to the Biographical Memoir of Sir John Barrow, Bart.’ (Add MS 35303)

Vol. V. Watercolour drawings and printed materials relating to the voyage of H.M.S. North Star to Baffin Bay and Barrow Straits (Add MS 35304)

Vol. VI. Manuscript of The Queen's Illuminated Magazine and North Cornwall Gazette (Add MS 35305)

This list will be updated as further volumes are added. You can also browse the collection and read full catalogue descriptions in our online catalogue.

Further Reading:

The search for John Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage, British Library (2018)
Claire Warrior, New discoveries from the lost Franklin expedition, Royal Museums Greenwich (Feb 2020)

05 January 2021

Bevin Trainees now in India Office Family History Search

In 1941 the British Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin, supported the establishment of the Bevin Training Scheme to provide practical training in engineering for young Indians.  The Scheme was an effort to meet the demand for skilled engineers in Indian industries supporting the war effort.

Leo Amery, Secretary of State for India, chatting to an Indian trainee at work in a factoryLeo Amery, Secretary of State for India, chatting to an Indian trainee at work in a factory - from Engineering Bulletin September 1941 published by the Ministry of Labour and National Service (Crown Copyright) IOR/L/I/1/978

A previous story on Untold Lives revealed that the India Office Records include lists of the first seven batches of trainees invited to the UK and details of the firms they were placed with and houses they lodged in.

Example of a page from the India Office file showing the details recorded about the traineesExample of a page from IOR/L/E/8/8112 showing the details recorded about the trainees Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

As part of the India Office Records team’s efforts to identify records of individuals in our collections who historically have been overlooked, we have now transcribed all the names and details from these lists into the British Library’s India Office Family History Search.

Here are some examples of entries:
Prasad, R. – Placed with the Cincinnatti Milling Machine Company, Birmingham, on 13 Oct 1941.  Lodged at 77 Eachelhurst Road, Erdington, Birmingham.  Trainee reference number 2/42.
Deshpande, H.G. – Placed with the London, Midland and Scottish Railway Company, Crewe, on 28 Sep 1942.  Lodged at Saxon House, Carlton Road, Whalley Range, Manchester.  Trainee reference number 5/38.
Nandy, S. – Placed with Vauxhall Motors, Luton, on 7 June 1943.  Lodged at 21 Ascot Road, Luton.  Trainee reference number 7/5.

We hope that this data will help your family history research and reveal stories about collaboration across cultures.

Matthew Waters
India Office Records

Further reading:
Bevin Training Scheme: papers not transferred to the High Commissioner for India, including lists of Indian trainees showing firms with whom placed and lodging addresses, May 1941-Sep 1947 [British Library reference IOR/L/E/8/8112]
Indian workmen training in UK (Bevin Boys), 1940-1947 [British Library reference IOR/L/I/1/978]

 

05 November 2020

Making gunpowder after the English method

A letter dated 2 February 1725 from the East India Company directors in London to their Council in Bengal contained sections on the manufacture and use of gunpowder.  The Company was concerned about the quality of saltpetre being sent from Bengal and sent instructions on how to improve it.  They were also keen to stop gunpowder being wasted.

Saltpetre was a key ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder.  The Company directors complained that the quality of saltpetre arriving in England had been declining for some years.  Very little had been bought at the London sale in March 1724, so they had decided to analyse samples from the 600 bags of saltpetre which had arrived from Bengal on the Lethieullier, Bridgewater, and Sarum.  The man who refracted the saltpetre reported that, although it looked white and good, there was a quantity of salt left in it.  The directors concluded that the Bengal Council must have employed unskilled people to refine the saltpetre, or their workers hadn’t been careful to separate the salt which was essential if good gunpowder was to be made.

Directions for refining saltpetre ‘Directions for Refining Saltpetre after the English manner, in order to make Gunpowder’ IOR E/3/102 f.240v Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

They sent ‘Directions for Refining Saltpetre after the English manner, in order to make Gunpowder’ based on advice from experts.  The workers in Bengal were to use these in a trial on a small amount of saltpetre to see how they got on.
• Dissolve the saltpetre in fresh boiling water.
• As the scum rises, take it off and put it to one side.
• When no more scum rises, draw off the liquor into vessels and let it settle.  The remaining filth or earth which makes the petre look so dirty will sink.
• When the liquor is perfectly clear, draw it off and boil with a gentle fire until a thin film can be seen on the surface.
• Pour into large shallow coolers, no more than eight inches deep.  The saltpetre will shoot into crystals.
• Decant any surplus liquor.  Either start again with fresh saltpetre added to it or boil it down by itself for a second shooting.

 

View of a Fort St George Madras from the sea, with a church to the left, hill peaks behind and ships in the foreground, including one firing guns.View of Fort St George, Madras, 1782, with a ship firing guns © The Trustees of the British Museum


The letter also reported complaints from the owners of East India ships about the great expense of gunpowder lavished on salutes.  The directors ruled:
• No more than nine guns were to be fired when Company ships arrived at a port in India and had a fort to salute.  The forts were to return salutes with only that number.
• Nine guns when captains first came onshore from Europe or were leaving for Europe. Just seven guns for saluting captains at any other time.
• No more than five guns to answer country ships (except foreigners).
• No more than nine guns when the Governor, members of Council, or other Company personnel came on board or left the ship.
• Be as frugal as possible when using gunpowder at festivals, funerals and other occasions.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
IOR/E/3/102 ff.231-240 Letter from East India Company directors in London to Bengal, 2 February 1725

East India Company saltpetre warehouses at Ratcliff

27 October 2020

Wearing a face mask

With the coronavirus pandemic we are all getting used to wearing facemasks in a range of public spaces from shops to transport.  Yet whilst the wearing of masks feels very new to us it is not the first time that they have been employed as a form of protection during an epidemic.

Face masks have been worn as a form of protection from foul air, or miasma, since at least the early 17th century.  The miasma theory of infection, which was accepted by doctors from the 1st century BC until well into the 19th century, ventured that many diseases – such as plague and cholera – were caused and spread through populations inhaling bad air.  (Indeed, the disease malaria literally takes its name from bad (mal) air (aria) in medieval Italian.)  In order to be protected doctors, and the public alike, often carried posies of flowers to freshen the air around them or wore face coverings that both acted as a physical barrier against bad air and attempted to fragrance (and thus purify) the air that was breathed.

Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor wearing a mask- ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’Coloured copper engraving by Paul Fürst depicting a plague doctor entitled ‘Doctor Schnabel von Rome’, [trans. ‘Doctor Beak from Rome’], 1656. from Wikimedia Commons


One of the most striking and recognisable protective face masks from the past is the long beaked mask worn by plague doctors throughout the 17th century. The mask has been credited as being developed in 1619 by Charles de Lorme (1584-1678), the physician to the French kings Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV.  The mask, which was a form of early respirator, covered the doctor’s full face with glass openings for the eyes and two air holes for the nostrils.  The long beak contained a cavity into which was stuffed a variety of aromatic items intended to purify the foul air that passed through the mask.  It would typically be filled with dried flowers, herbs, spices or a sponge soaked in vinegar.  The mask’s grotesque features made the plague doctor an instantly recognisable and feared figure and it eventually became a popular costume for revellers at the Carnival of Venice – an event made famous for its elaborate masks.

Kid skin face mask with silk ribbonsKid skin mask with silk ribbons, worn as a prophylactic against the plague, c. 1660. Add MS 78428 B Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Although not as dramatic as those worn by the plague doctors, the British Library holds a face covering from the mid-17th century that has some similar features to shield against the plague.  The Library’s covering is made from fine kidskin leather and comprises a pouch into which the wearer could place scented materials to protect the nose and mouth from foul air.  The Library’s intriguing face covering is found in the archive of the diarist John Evelyn (1620-1706) and was possibly worn by him as a form of protection during the London plague epidemic of 1665-1666; the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague to occur in England.

It is not clear how much protection these plague masks afforded, but both de Lorme and Evelyn lived through years of plague to survive well into old age.  Masks can clearly help support public health and though it feels strange at first, we should remember wearing them in an epidemic is nothing new.

Alexander Lock
Curator, Modern Historical Manuscripts and Archives

 

30 July 2020

Sir Andrew Scott Waugh and the naming of Everest

In a letter from Charles Canning, Governor General and Viceroy of India to Lord Elgin, dated 2 October 1861, he writes that Lady Canning has set out on a trip to Darjeeling and that she talks of going into Sikkim to see the highest mountain in the world – ‘Deodunga or Mount Everest as the Surveyors have barbarously christened it’.

Guarinsankar  or Mount Everest  in the Himalaya of NepalGuarinsankar, or Mount Everest, in the Himalaya of Nepal from Results of a Scientific Mission to India and High Asia, undertaken between the years 1854 and 1858, by order of the Court of Directors of the Honourable East India Company, by H., A. and R. de Schlagintweit Shelfmark1899.a.8  BL - Images Online 

How did ’Mount Everest’ get its name?

The surveying of Everest was carried out under the auspices of Major General Sir Andrew Scott Waugh, Sir George Everest’s successor as both Surveyor General of India, and Superintendent of the Great Trigonometrical Survey of India.  Waugh was born into an Indian military family in 1810. He was appointed a cadet in the East India Company in 1827, and joined the Bengal Engineers.  He was assigned to the GTS in 1832.

Page from Andrew Scott Waugh's East India Company cadet application papers - a glowing report from his schoolmasterPage from Andrew Scott Waugh's East India Company cadet application papers - a glowing report from his schoolmaster IOR/L/MIL/9/166 f.239 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The Trigonometrical Survey had been instituted in 1802 by the East India Company to survey scientifically the entire Indian subcontinent.  Initially it was thought that India could be surveyed in five years: in reality, it was to take seventy.  From 1823, the GTS was under the superintendence of George Everest, and he appointed Waugh to the service.  When Everest retired in 1843, he nominated his protégé to succeed him.

By the late 1830s, the Great Trigonometrical Survey reached the Himalayan region.  Foreigners were not allowed to enter Nepal, so observations were taken from Terai.  By 1847, Waugh and his team had noted that a mountain known as ‘Peak B’ appeared higher than Kangchenjunga, the then ‘highest mountain in the world’.  Calculations and observations continued, with the mountain rechristened ‘Peak XV’.  By 1852, the GTS’s talented mathematician or ‘Chief Computer’ Radhanath Sikdar established beyond doubt that the peak was indeed the highest mountain.  It was normal for the GTS to use local names as far as possible when naming peaks.  In this instance, Waugh stated “But here is a mountain, most probably the highest in the world, without any local name that we can discover, or whose native appellation, if it have any, will not very likely be ascertained before we are allowed to penetrate into Nepaul and to approach close to this stupendous snowy mass”.  He went on to suggest ‘Mount Everest’ as a suitable epithet, a name that was finally confirmed by the Royal Geographical Society in 1865.

Photograph of Sir George EverestPhotograph of Sir George Everest by Camille Silvy, 28 July 1862. NPG Ax60654 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence


So, was the mountain ‘nameless’?  It is true that it was difficult to establish a definitive local name.  However, its Tibetan name Qomolangma (or Chomolungma) had been recorded in 18th century maps.  In Darjeeling, it was called Deodungha, meaning Holy Mountain, a name championed by Brian Houghton Hodgson, the naturalist and previous Resident to Nepal.  Even Sir George Everest made objections.  He had never seen the mountain, was not involved in its discovery, and pointed out that his name was difficult to pronounce in Hindi.  Interestingly, he appears to have pronounced his name ‘E-vrest’ rather than ‘Ever-est’.

Andrew Scott WaughPortrait of Andrew Scott Waugh by William Glynn c. 1857 British Library Photo 139/1(3)

Andrew Scott Waugh received the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal in 1856, and was elected to the Royal Society in 1858.  He retired in 1861, having been promoted to Major General and knighted in the same year.  He died in South Kensington in 1877.

Lesley Shapland
Cataloguer, India Office Records

Further Reading:
Mss Eur F699 Papers of Charles Canning and Charlotte Canning, Earl and Countess Canning:
Mss Eur F699/1/3/2/53, item 2623 - correspondence from Sir Andrew Scott Waugh, including his memorials, and letters in praise of Sir George Everest; Mss Eur F699/1/1/2/1, letter 31 - Charles Canning to Lord Elgin, 2 October 1861.
IOR/L/MIL/9/166/232-39: Cadet papers of Andrew Scott Waugh.
Paper read by Andrew Scott Waugh to the Royal Geographical Society on 12 May 1857, reported in Illustrated London News, 15 August 1857, p.170.
John Keay, The Great ARC: The Dramatic Tale of How India was Mapped and Everest was Named (2000).
General J. T. Walker, ‘A Last Note on Mont Everest’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society and Monthly Record of Geography, Vol. 8, No. 4 (April 1886), pp. 257-263.

 

16 July 2020

Researching Women in Science in the Modern Manuscript Collections Part 2: 1849-1950

The 19th century saw women in Britain campaigning for the right to the same access to education as men.  In 1849, Bedford College became the first higher education college for women and more colleges would be set up in its wake.  Women would soon study for degrees in the sciences.  Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Sophia Jex-Blake became some of the first women to qualify as doctors in the country.  An increase in formal education across scientific subjects meant an increase of women in the fields of chemistry, engineering and biology.  Among the correspondence within the Stopes Papers (Add MS 58447 – 37201) we find countless letters of professional women across many spheres in the early 20th century, including letters from surgeon Dr. Ethel Vaughan-Sawyer and engineer Hertha Ayrton.

Bedford College in York Place LondonThe second home of Bedford College in York Place, London - Illustrated London News 21 May 1949 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

Prospects for finding manuscripts relating to women working within the sciences improve as time goes on, but it is not a level playing field for all women.  Opportunities evidently improve for some women within the 20th century as more women gain qualifications, but there are very few collections relating to BAME women in science before the later 20th century.  On top of the combined pressures of both sexism and racism within society which denied the opportunities of many professional careers to BAME women, the scientific arena itself engaged in theories of racial superiority.  Just as opportunities were opening up for women in science, eugenic theories first postulated in the 19th century became mainstream. Physicians like Marie Stopes actively engaged in eugenic societies and with ideas of racial purity.

This systemic racism from both inside and outside of science meant opportunities to break through into professional scientific research were few and far between for many women of colour.  However, in the field of medicine, we can find some collections relating to BAME women.  Dr Rukhmabai travelled from India to gain a degree in medicine from the London School of Medicine for Women and went on to practise in India.  There is a file concerning her early life in the India Office Records (IOR/L/PJ/6/202, File 729) which concerns her seminal legal case contesting her arranged marriage.  The London School hosted many Indian students providing scholarships to exceptional students to train in London.

Newspaper article on the hostel for Indian medical students from Vote 16 July 1920
Newspaper article on the hostel for Indian medical students from Vote 16 July 1920. British Newspaper Archive

There are also papers within the Sylvia Pankhurst Papers (Add MS 88925) concerning the legacy of Princess Tsahai Haile Selassie who trained as nurse at Great Ormond Street Hospital.

Princess Tsahai in nursing uniform at Great Ormond Street with two other nursesPhotograph of Princess Tsahai in nursing uniform at Great Orm0nd Street Hospital - Illustrated London News 5 September 1936 British Newspaper Archive via Findmypast

The collections explored over these two blog posts demonstrate how factors of gender, wealth and race have affected how different women have been able to contribute to science in Britain up until 1950.  Despite the evident, and varied, obstacles women faced over the centuries – which have influenced the type of material we hold in our collections – there is still a lot to explore.  Buried within the archives, the collections relating to women in science contain many examples of ingenuity against the odds, many accounts of controversy, innovation and discovery, and many more stories yet to be told.

Jessica Gregory.
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts.

Further Reading:
Subhadra Das, Bricks and Mortals: A History of Eugenics Told Through Buildings
Voices of Science 

Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

 

14 July 2020

Researching Women in Science in the Modern Manuscript Collections Part 1: 1601-1848

The British Library modern manuscript collections contain a substantial volume of papers that concern the history of science in Britain.  There is, however, a notable absence of women authors among these scientific manuscripts that date from the 17th to the 20th centuries.  Women had been excluded from formal scientific training until the birth of women’s colleges in the 19th century, but it is not the case that women did not make contributions to science before this.  Examining women’s contribution to science offers us an alternative history of science, one that encompasses more informal approaches, cross-disciplinary perspectives, and involves a concerted effort on behalf of women to carve out a space for themselves in an establishment that often suppressed or even appropriated their work.

Before the scientific revolution many women were practising medicine and herbalism in their homes and communities.  This tradition didn’t drop away immediately with the rise of modern medicine.  The Sloane manuscripts contain many medicinal recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries and many of these were authored by women.

Sloane MS 3849An example of a medicinal recipe in the Sloane Collection, 17th Century. Anonymous. Sloane MS 3849 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

In aristocratic homes of the 17th and 18th centuries, women were more likely to be taught to read and write; their position in society meant that they could attain modern scientific publications and then engage in their own personal studies, translations and writings.  The British Library holds some manuscripts authored by the polymath, Margaret Cavendish.  Cavendish was tutored at home and pursued her own intellectual interests across subjects, writing a treatise on natural philosophy which was a field of early modern science.  Her achievements meant that she became the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society in May 1667.

Engraving of Margaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon TyneMargaret Cavendish (née Lucas), Duchess of Newcastle upon Tyne, by William Greatbach, published 1846 - NPG D5346 © National Portrait Gallery, London National Portrait Gallery Creative Commons Licence

Another aristocrat with a formidable legacy is Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who educated herself through the household library.  Lady Montagu witnessed smallpox inoculation among groups of women during her travels in the Ottoman Empire.  Learning from these women, she brought the process to Britain, successfully inoculating her family and others.  She wrote in favour of inoculation in an article defending the process, and ultimately, the processes she learnt from women in Turkey and developed in Britain would be built upon by Edward Jenner in the development of the vaccine in 1796.  The British Library holds items of her prose and correspondence across collections, including in the Portland, Egerton and P.A. Taylor papers.

Add MS 61479
A poem manuscript by Lady Montagu addressing a woman advising her on retirement. Add MS 61479  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Several women working in science in the early 19th century similarly benefitted from educational opportunities available to them owing to their class and connections.  Mary Somerville was educated at home, had the benefit of access to books and a sympathetic uncle who worked with her to improve her studies.  Her formidable intellect meant she wrote and published on the subjects of maths, physics, and geology.  Somerville in turn tutored Ada Lovelace who worked with Charles Babbage on the first mechanical computer.  There are items of correspondence from both women in the Babbage Papers (Add MS 37182 - 37201).

Add MS 37192Letter from Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage, 1843, Add MS 37192 Public Domain Creative Commons Licence


The next blog in this series will examine women in science after the birth of women’s colleges and related archives in the collections.

Jessica Gregory
Curatorial Support Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts

Further Reading:
Devoney Looser, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1620-1829 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2000)

Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

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