"Keeping it Simple: How Women Scientists Adapted Their Works to a Wider Audience"

by: Sameer Chevru, Eric DiCorrado, Gouthami Dikkala, Brittany Opraseuth, Maulik Sheth, Sam Watts

Keywords: Women, British, Science, Botany, Geology


The contributions of female scientists have often been overlooked or marginalized throughout history. During the Romantic period in Britain, there were several barriers discouraging women from participating in scientific discoveries including their exclusion from royal scientific societies and universities. Despite these obstacles, women have consistently made significant contributions to scientific fields including botany, chemistry, astronomy and physics especially during the Romantic period. Although female scientists contributed greatly to science during the Romantic period, there are notable differences between their works and the works of male scientists of the time. Specifically, scholars Margaret Alic and Patricia Fara have noted that the works of female romantic scientists differ in voice and complexity from the male scientists of the era. Fara documents that female Romantic scientists “translated and simplified important texts such as Newton's book on gravity” (78). Additionally, according to Alic women's scientific communities suggest “the existence of an unrecognized sub-culture within a community” during the years of Romantic scientific advancement (38). Both of these observations serve as evidence to suggest that many female Romantic scientists such as Priscilla Wakefield and others purposefully tailored and simplified their works so as to provide lay women with greater access to science thus encouraging more women to become scientists themselves.

Somerville_3.jpeg Mary Somerville was the daughter of a vice admiral in the British Navy, who allowed her only to study simple arithmetic despite her family’s economic status. Somerville taught herself algebra at the age of 13 after seeing “mysterious symbols” in a puzzle in a fashion magazine. Somerville married her cousin, Capt. Samuel Greig in 1804, who criticized her scientific enthusiasm and forbade her from extensively studying. Greig died 3 years later, leaving her with 3 children and the independence to study freely. In 1812 she remarried to Dr. William Somerville, another cousin but he supported his wife’s endeavors, as well as women’s right to education as a whole, and used his membership in the Royal Society to get Mary’s works read and published. Her first paper was on "The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays” in 1826, the second paper written by a woman to be read to the Royal Academy, second to Caroline Herschel’s astronomical observations.
Somerville translated Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste to English in 1831 and entitled it Mechanism of the Heavens, which was an impressive feat for a woman in this time for she not only translated it, she explained in detail the mathematics used by Laplace. Laplace said that she was the only woman who could understand his work. After Mechanism of the Heavens she predicted that “All my other books will soon be forgotten, by this my name will be alone remembered.” Mechanism of the Heavens was not the only book that Somerville translated and made more comprehensible, Newton’s Principia is another great example of this. Somerville then wrote The Connection of the Physical Sciences in 1834, about the possibility of an undiscovered planet which inspired John Couch Adams to discover Neptune.
After the success of Mechanism of the Heavens and The Connection of the Physical Sciences, Mary Somerville was elected into the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835, the same time as Caroline Herschel, for which she received a £300 pension. In 1848, at age 68, she published Physical Geography, her most successful and widely used book, for this she received the Patron’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. Sommerville died at the age of 92.
Mary Somerville was a strong supporter of women’s education and suffrage. Although she recognized that the spark of genius is “not granted to the sex” (Personal Recollections), referring to women as a whole, she tried her hardest to make the works of many male scientists readily available and more comprehensible to women. Ogilvie says that “it is not as an experimental scientist nor as an original thinker that Mary Somerville is important to the history of science” but as one who analyzes and synthesizes the works of others into more intelligible forms. Ogilvie doesn’t realize that this may not have been for Somerville solely to gain repute in the scientific community, but instead to give more power and knowledge to her seemingly oppressed sex. It is documented that John Stuart Mill went to Mary Somerville to get her to put her signature first on the petition to parliament to give women the right to vote. (O’Conner and Roberston) A female college in Oxford was named after Somerville due to her strong support for womens' rights.
Somerville’s feminism is exemplified by one of her most popular works, Mechanism of the Heavens. This book was commissioned by a Society that’s goal was to make difficult works more easily comprehensible. Somervilletook this opportunity and ran with it, making Mechanism of the Heavens one of the most read books of the time and received wonderful reviews, making the extremely difficult topic discussed in Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste more clear and accessible to women. Somerville also directly influenced Ada Lovelace’s education, she is said to have helped her in mathematics and also encouragement to remain steadfast in the male dominated realm of science and math. (O’Conner and Roberston)

Mary Anning was a 19th century fossilist who lived in Lyme Regis her entire life, discovering a variety of dinosaur fossils, which she learned about from her father. Upon her father’s death, Mary and her family were forced to sell the fossils that they found to supportplesiosaur.jpgthemselves. Mary found three main skeletons of dinosaurs, the icthyosaurus, the plesiosaur, and the pterodactyl. Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey discuss how the last of her discoveries “most appealed to the public” and became the basis of popular works and pieces of work directed towards children (41-42). As Renee Clary and James Wandersee noted, “her visibility in the sciences was quite unusual, since at that time, women and those of low social standing were barred from participation in scientific societies (153).” Mary Anning’s circumstances allowed her to find unique discoveries for her time period, which greatly co
Pictures of Plesiosaurs
ntributed to her popularity. Since Anning was located in an area where fossils happened to be abundant, she did not need to put much effort into her work. Her interest in discovering these fossils allowed her career to develop further. After Georges Cuvier affirmed Anning’s findings, more people were interested in visiting the Lyme Regis to explore for themselves (Hugh Torrens 264). The simplicity and the novelty of her
discoveries would have sparked public interest in Mary Anning’s work. Despite her disadvantage of being a female in a predominantly male field of work, Anning was able to make herself recognized because of the dedication she put forth into discovering these fossils (Torrens 265). Mary did not let her lack of education set her back in achieving and exploring more fossils. This serves as an inspiration to other women who might find that they are unequipped with the skills to succeed. Anning set an example to other women that with perseverance, women can utilize the resources that they have access, such as the land they live on, to in order to delve into any scientific field. Anning’s work was initially a shallow endeavor, but her findings gave way to more significant implications. For the opportunities that were available to women at the time, this idea gave hope that they could succeed as well.

Another notable scientist was Priscilla Wakefield, who explored many possibilities during the 19th century. She is known for her stories, her findings, her publications and her experience in the field of botany; she is also well known for her opinions. Wakefield’s views and writings were focused around many fields of interest such as botany, navigation, traveling, and th
220px-Priscilla_Wakefield.jpge idea that women needed to gain access to the world of science and to receive the recognition they deserve. She believed that being overshadowed by men and not gaining scientific acknowledgment was “a difficulty that deterred many, particularly the female sex, from attempting to obtain the knowledge of a science” (Wakefield iv). Working to popularize science, Wakefield attempted to make people, especially women more scientifically literate. She constantly criticized institutions and society as a whole for corruption and for the oppression of women during the time period.
In An Introduction to Botany, in a Series of Familiar Letters, Wakefield writes a correspondence between two young sisters to give the general public a better sense of botany and what it has to offer (Harvey and Ogilvie 1337). The purpose of this book was to introduce people who lack the knowledge, especially children and young adults, to plant classifications and morphology (Harvey and Ogilvie 1337). Margaret Alic explains that “the study of botany would keep women virtuous and passive”; however it is another way of women getting their voices heard in a non-direct way (111). Botany has been the most accepting of women of all the sciences; it has been a good stepping-stone for future woman involvement. Wakefield promoted this field of science and showed that women could make themselves known by making the public more knowledgeable to the subject. She believed that botany was “adapted to the simplest capacity, and the objects of its investigation offer themselves without expense or difficulty” (Wakefield iv). Alic even describes botany to be the “female science,” but women made their way in this field because they did their best to appeal to the public in order to get recognition for their work (110). Wakefield incorporated woman empowerment in almost all of her writings in order to promote her ideals as a feminist. She did more than just write about botany but she also touched upon fields such as navigation, traveling, and animal observations in her work, Mental Improvement. She gained fame and respect through her publications as a children’s literature writer and as a scientist by making them simple enough for everyone to understand. She sparked interest in many individuals and popularized botany and traveling, and she may have inspired other women to take the approach of simplifying their work in order to get publications and to gain acceptance.

Like Priscilla Wakefield, Anna Atkins (née Children) also worked in the field of botany. What separates her, however, is her use of Sir John Herschel’s cyanotype photogram process in order to capture pictures of her specimens. Atkins’ work pioneered the use of photography in all science in order to obtain accurate interpretations of data and visual sciences. The photograph, in turn, allowed women to understand science more easily, as even the most scientifically illiterate could figure out a picture. Her father, Johnsameers_pic.jpg George Children, was an active member in the Royal Society; as such, Atkins had access to the society’s database. When Herschel developed the technique in 1841, it caught her attention, and she quickly adapted the technique for use in her books as she realized that the new medium of cyanotype photograms conquered "the difficulty of making accurate drawings of objects as minute as many of the Algae and Conferva.” Mike Ware argues in his book, Cyanotype: the History, Science and Art of Photographic Printing in Prussian Blue, that much of her work is due to her father’s status and her husband’s prodding (81-82). It is incontestable that her father’s influence in the society gained her some ability to access the cutting edge technology usd in her prints. However, as Ware also notes, the Herschels were good family friends of Atkins and her father. Therefore, it is also possible that she learned of these advancements directly from Herschel. Furthermore, Ware claims that her work was driven by the death of her father in 1852 (84). It should also be noted that once her work was finished, she gave the first copy to Anne Dixon, Atkins’ friend who came to console her after her father’s death and act as an assistant. It is therefore probable that Atkins’ goal in creating this book was to pass her trade on and spark interest in other women. While her works were not as well known, they assisted in the botanic process, and as women dominated botany during the time period, her work facilitated the scientific process and allowed more women an easy access into scientific endeavors.


Women have played a significant role in the ever advancing field of scientific knowledge of the human race. However, for many centuries women were excluded from scientific communities through various means. Women were not allowed to become members of royal scientific societies in Britain during the the Romantic period. When they did make contributions or publish scientific works, they were often shelved and ignored by the male Romantic scientists in Britain. Since these British women scientists were not formally educated in their respective scientific fields, there are significant differences between their works and the works of male scientists of the time. Although Margaret Alic has noted that female romantic scientists “translated and simplified important texts”, and Patricia Fara observed that there existed an “unrecognized sub-culture” within the greater scientific community in Britain during the Romantic period, they overlook that the reason for such differences between male and female scientists was partly politically motivated (Fara 78, Alic 38). Because female Romantic scientists knew that other women would not be scientifically literate, the women that gained prominence in scientific fields during the Romantic period purposefully kept their works simple and easy to comprehend so that other women could learn and understand science. This politically motivated effort served to increase the number of female scientists and serve the greater feminist cause during the Romantic period.

Other Women Scientists

1. Elizabeth Fulhame(unknown)-chemist
2. Jane Marcet(1789-1858)-author of popular science books/natural philosopher
3. Sarah Mary Fitton(1817-1866)-botanist
4. Elizabeth Fitton(unknown)-botanist
5. Ada Byron(1815-1852)-computer programmer
6. Anna Atkins(1799-1871)-botanist and photographer
7. Caroline Herschel(1750-1848)-astronomer
8. Janet Taylor(unknown)-astronomer, some navigation
9. Florence Nightingale(1820-1910)-nurse
10. Etheldred Benett(1776-1845)-geologist
11. Elizabeth Brown(1830-1899)-astronomer
12. Mary Morland Buckland(1797-1857)-natural historian
13. Mary Lyell(1808-1873)-geologist
14. Jane Loudon(1807-1858)-botanist
15. Margaret Bryan(FL 1815)-British Natural Philosopher

Data Visualization

This pie chart shows the distribution of British women scientists of the 19th century in different fields of study.
This google ngram relates women and science from 1750-1850. During this time period, it is apparent that women and science became more associated with each other as the Romantic period progressed.


Women in science—Great Britain

The Connection of the Physical Sciences (Mary Somerville)
This book by Somerville literally discusses the connections between the sciences that were being developed during that time period. She shows the similarities and differences in the sciences and unites some by statements of her own. She says that in order to fully understand one field of science, it is necessary to have a general knowledge of many other sciences.

Hypatia’s Heritage: a History of Women in Science from Antiquity to the Late Nineteenth Century (Margaret Alic)
This book touches upon many different fields of science that women became involved with during the nineteenth century. It emphasizes that when people think of the history of science, they think of the men who drastically changed the way science was viewed. Throughout this book, many women are described in detail and honored for their works and achievements to the developments of natural and social sciences.

Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (Patricia Fara)
This book is named after Pandora from greek mythology in which her breeches were a powerful symbol because it gave women empowerment. Women scientists are compared to notable men during the time; men gained much more fame and recognition for their accomplishments. Women during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries greatly contributed to the rapid growth of science as a whole.

Marilyn Ogilvie and Joy Harvey’s The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science : Pioneering Lives from Ancient times to the Mid-20th Century.
This dictionary provides information on numerous women who have been influential in the field of science. It has information about women from different time periods and different places as well. It gives a brief biography on each woman and also provides primary and secondary sources that can be accessed for more information.

Personal Recollections: from Early Life to Old Age, of Mary Somerville. (Mary Somerville)
This autobiography was published in 1873, after Mary Somerville’s death, by her daughter through John Murray. The book gives a detailed account of Mary Somerville’s life, from her early childhood to her scientific career and ending with her later life. She discusses her works, her difficulty gaining repute, and relationships with different members of the scientific community. The autobiography also houses many of the correspondences between Somerville and other scientists.

A Compendious System of Astronomy, in a Course of Familiar Letters (Margaret Bryan)
Margaret Bryan writes about astronomy in a series of letters in order to give her audience a better understanding of the topic. She delves into descriptions and illustrations that represent her findings and explanations of astronomy as a whole. Planets, comets, stars and the atmosphere are major topics within this work.

Women in Science—Earth Sciences

"Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme; 'The Greatest Fossilist the World Ever Knew'" (Hugh Torren)
This article provides biographical information about Mary Anning in the introduction, describing events in her life shaped her interest to become a paleontologist. After her biographical information, the article discusses how Anning’s work was not recognized to its fullest extent. After she died, her work received more recognition by different people and resources, such as the newspaper and children’s stories. Not only did Mary Anning’s work influence her own time period, but also modern times through television and literature. The end of the article discusses how it can be difficult to research Anning because little information is known about her work because of her situation.

Recreation in geology (Rosina Marina Zorlin)
In this book, Rosina Zorlin discusses how geology is a popular science during the time period. She discusses how various time periods contained different types of rocks. More specfically, Rosina demonstrates how each time period had different developments in relationship to the plants and animals that can be found by examining the rocks and fossils in different areas.

Physical Geography (Mary Somerville)
According to the author “Physical Geography is a description of the earth, the sea, and the air, with their inhabitants animal and vegetable, of the distribution of these organized beings, and the causes of that distribution. Political and arbitrary divisions are disregarded, the sea and the land are considered only with respect to those great features that have been stamped upon them by the hand of the Almighty, and man himself is viewed but as a fellow-inhabitant of the globe with other created things, yet influencing them to a certain extent by his actions, and influenced in return. The effects of his intellectual superiority on the inferior animals, and even on his own condition by the subjection of some of the most powerful agents in nature of his will, together with the other causes which have had the greatest influence on his physical and moral state, are among the most important subjects of this science.” (Somerville 1)

Modern Geography (Charlotte Kennion)
This work is a comprehensive view of the geography of the Earth. It classifies and categorizes the scientific discoveries of the time in the field of Geography. Various systems of geographical study are discussed and detailed throughout the text.

“The role of British and German women in early 19th century geology: a comparative assessment.” (M.kolbl-ebert)
The beginning of geology in a modern sense occurred in 1800. In Britain at this time women were an integral part of the British geological infrastructure. As a result many British women made significant contributions as secretaries, assistants, collectors and field geologists. In Germany on the other hand, due to rigid social norms and female model as a homemaker, the atmosphere was hostile to intellectual women due to early professionalization of geology. This article is a comparative study of these topics.

Women in science—Botany

Conversations on Botany (Sarah Mary Fitton, Elizabeth Fitton, Jane Marcet)
The purpose of this writing is to allow young adults and children to gain knowledge of plants within their native country. These women focused on the Linnaean system of classification on specific plants found in Britain. They wrote in comparison to writings on chemistry and wanted to gain appreciation for world around Britain.

Introduction to Botany (Priscilla Wakefield)
Priscilla Wakefield writes about the major aspects of the field of botany. She writes simplistically in order to appeal to a wider audience and gives it a unique flare by writing it as a conversation between two sisters. Her main topics include the classifications of many species of plants, and she delves into the specific parts and reproduction of plants in general.

Sun Gardens: Victorian Pictograms. (Larry J. Schaaf, Hans P. Kraus, and Anna Atkins)
This book was originally a book of cyanotype photographs by Anna Atkins from the mid-19th century. However, the original book was only printed in small quantities. In 1985, Larry J. Schaaf and Hans P. Kraus found a copy of the original Atkins photogram book and republished it along with biographical information on her life.

“Linnaeus in Letters: ‘Botany in an English Dress’” (Samantha George)
In this article, author Sam George discusses the natural focus on botanical works towards the female sex through the use of analogies relating women to the science of botany. She discusses how information about botany created by both men and women in the time period have a feminised tinge and are deliberately marketed towards the female demographic.

Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760- 1860 (Ann Shteir)
This book brings together the writings and accomplishments of British female botanists of the time period. Some of these women were even recognized by the famous poets: Coleridge, Byron and Shelley. It emphasizes the need for these women to be recognized for their work in botany because they have long been forgotten.