Breaking The Mold: Great Female Scientists Of The Victorian Era

The Great Exhibition of 1851 showcased the latest and greatest scientific advancements of the day and age. J. McNeven/Wikimedia Commons
Josh Davis 08 Mar 2016, 15:16

In an age when science and engineering exploded due to the Industrial Revolution, men and women’s roles continued to be sharply defined. Women were often left at home to oversee the domestic duties of the household, while middle-class gentlemen could go off to pursue the sciences, math, and engineering, which had become the preserve of the rich men. Yet some women managed to push these boundaries and break the mould, contributing significantly to the scientific discipline of the era in the process. 

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

On the south coast of England, near the town of Lyme Regis, the Anning family had a business collecting and selling what at the time were known as “curios,” but were in fact fossil ammonites, belemnites, and vertebrae. The daughter, Mary, grew up collecting fossils along what is now known as the “Jurassic Coast,” before even the word “dinosaur” had been invented. In 1812, her brother found the first ever complete ichthyosaur skull, while Mary later dug up the rest of the skeleton. 

When her father died, it was Mary who continued the family business of collecting and selling fossils. She would become an expert on fossils and geology, with many of the world’s leading geologists taking trips to Lyme Regis to learn from and go fossil hunting with her. Mary is credited with discovering the first ever Plesiosaur, the first fossil pterosaur ever found outside of Germany, and was the first to suggest that what were known as “bezoar stones” were actually fossil feces of ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs.

Despite her incredible scientific record and world renowned finds, she remained outside of the scientific community. This was partly because of her gender, but also due to her choice of religion and working-class status. Her family were known “religious dissenters,” and so were not allowed into universities, which at the time were run by the Church of England and dominated by Anglian gentlemen. Even though she was one of the foremost experts on palaeontology, it was often the wealthy gentlemen to whom she sold the fossils who would get the credit for the finds, and not her.

Ada Lovelace (1815-1852)

Born Ada Gordon, she was actually the only legitimate daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who left Ada’s mother when she was just one month old. It was in part this bitterness that led her mother to promote in Ada a love for science, mathematics, and logic, in a hope that she would steer clear of the arts. As a child, she invented whimsical flying machines, and studied the diagrams of machines invented during the Industrial Revolution, a far cry from learning how to keep the household as many young women would have been taught. 

She would become Lovelace when she married William King, who was then made the Earl of Lovelace, with Ada becoming the Countess. But it was not until she was introduced to Charles Babbage that Lovelace really came into her own. The two would become good friends, with Babbage describing Lovelace as “that Enchantress who has thrown her magical spell around the most abstract of Sciences and has grasped it with a force which few masculine intellects could have exerted over it.”

When in 1837 Babbage showed Lovelace his plans for what he called the “Analytical Machine,” which is regarded as the earliest ever example of a computer, Lovelace was fascinated. When working on an article about the machine, Lovelace added a method of using the machine to calculate Bernoulli numbers, which is widely considered to be the very first computer program, making Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. It was work written by Lovelace that would go on to inspire another computer genius: Alan Turing.

Beatrix Potter (1866-1943)

Living surrounding by the idyllic rolling hills and plunging valleys of the Lake District in northern England, it is easy to see where Beatrix Potter got inspiration for her globally recognized children’s book, "The Tale of Peter Rabbit." It was this setting that seemingly spurred another of her passions: botany. Using her artistic skills, Potter drew beautiful illustrations of plants, but her interest was not solely superficial, and would eventually become focused on mycology, studying fungi in great detail.  

She became fascinated in how they reproduced, and developed a theory for their germination. Despite her growing knowledge in the field, and the experiments she conducted, Potter’s approaches were rejected by the Director of Kew because of her sex and amateur status. She persisted anyway, writing her first and only scientific paper and submitting it to the Linnaean Society, though it had to be introduced by her male friend George Massee, because as a woman she was not allowed to attend proceedings and present the paper herself. In 1997, the Linnaean Society actually issued an apology for the sexism they displayed.

In the paper, she described her experiments cultivating fungi and documenting their lye cycle, including their fruiting bodies and basidiospores. She was asked to do further work on the paper, but later found fame with her children’s books, and so it was not until decades later that her work looking at fungal spores was discovered, and confirmed by other scientists. She was a prolific illustrator, and recorded species that would not be officially described until forty years later. It is also thought that she was one of the first people to suggest that lichen was a mutual relationship between fungi and algae. 

Top image in text: 'Mr.Grey'/Wikimedia Commons

Middle image in text: Alfred Edward Chalon/Wikimedia Commons

Bottom image in text: Charles G.Y. King/Wikimedia Commons

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