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Women in Science

May 1893 — World’s Congress of Representative Women, Chicago World’s Fair, Chicago IL


Read by Julia Holmes Smith


Those who interest themselves in the modern development of mental activity in women, are liable to imagine that this has been aroused equally in all directions. This, however, is far from being the case. The two great activities of modern times are industry and science, and it is precisely in industry and science that women are least conspicuous. In all industrial occupations, it is true, women are largely engaged — they constitute more than two-thirds of all the factory operatives of the world, they throng the workshops, they carry on the retail business of stores — but we rarely find them as yet among the captains of industry, among the leaders, projectors, or controllers of industrial enterprises on any large scale.

Physical science at the present day has opened up a sphere of activity resembling that of industry in an enormous development of details, which can afford useful employment to multitudes of persons of moderate ability, if well trained in technical methods and possessed of patience and conscientiousness. Either original researches or the processes of applied science demand the coöperation of a great number of assistants to perform manipulations involving much labor and time, requiring intelligence and great accuracy, but not necessitating original mental power.

This is a most useful and important field of work for women. Should they enter largely upon it they might still remain as far removed from the position of the scientific thinkers as is that of the factory operatives from that of the mill owner. But the work of laboratory assistant, though relatively inferior, is absolutely so important, dignified, difficult, and interesting that the women who should or do engage in it may be well satisfied, even when they do not advance to the dignity of original contributors to the science they serve.

Mathematical calculations are required for many branches, notably astronomy. The Woman’s Journal, of April 29th, quotes from the “Transactions of the Astronomical Observatory of Yale College ” a paper by Miss Margaretta Palmer, a graduate of Vassar College in 1887. This young lady is working as regular assistant in the Yale Observatory, under Doctor Elkin, and has been reinvestigating the orbit of the comet of 1847, which was discovered by Maria Mitchell. Maria Mitchell herself, after establishing her reputation by the discovery of this comet — for which she received a gold medal from the king of Denmark — was for years employed upon the Coast Survey and in the compilation of the “American Nautical Almanac.”

Some years ago Professor Bowditch of Harvard University published some valuable researches on the growth of American school children. The result of these researches was summed up in tables based on mathematical calculations, and these were made chiefly by Miss Jacobs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. At this institution, and also at the Stevens Institute, at Hoboken, ladies have worked as assistants in the chemical laboratories. One of these ladies, Miss Chevalier, was offered a position as permanent assistant in the chemical laboratory at Cornell University, but declined, and has been for many years professor of chemistry at the Woman’s Medical College of New York. She has performed difficult chemical researches on nerve tissue. At Ithaca, also, in the laboratory for comparative anatomy, the wife of Prof. Burt G. Wilder assists in her husband’s work, and has illustrated his paper on brain anatomy, published in the reference hand-book on medical sciences.

In the histological laboratory of the Woman’s Medical College of New York excellent work is done by female assistants to the professor in the preparation of embryological and other specimens. Similar work is done at the Western colleges where coeducation prevails, as at Ann Arbor.

These little glimpses are all I have been able to obtain of the work of women as laboratory assistants in this country. In Europe, however, and especially in the Swiss universities, women are constantly engaged in the laboratories, and from time to time their names become associated with those of a senior teacher in the publication of some original research. The “Kendall,” who, with Leuchsinger at Zürich, published an important essay on the innervation of the sweat glands, was an American girl and medical student.

It is easier for the moment to ascertain the names of the women who have done some independent work in different branches of science. To the original work of Maria Mitchell I have already alluded, and it is well known to every one. Born in 1818, she was the first American woman to be known in any science. She was educated in mathematics and astronomy by her father, and it is said that at the early age of eleven she was already able to assist him in his work. I do not know of any actual contribution to astronomical science made by Miss Mitchell after her one famous discovery, but she published several astronomical treatises, and was the first female member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

It is an interesting fact that the début into science of American women should have been made in mathematics and astronomy, for these are the fundamental sciences of the entire hierarchy, and it is as logical that women should begin with them as it is contrary to much current opinion about women’s faculties that they should show any capacity for mathematics at all. However, before Maria Mitchell became known in America, several women in Europe had already achieved distinction in mathematical science. In a biographical dictionary which extends from Rhea Silvia, the mother of Romulus, to Juliet Adam of modern Paris, there are recorded relatively few names of women who have become known in connection with any branch of science; and ten of these were mathematicians. Of these the earliest reported to us is Hypatia, the celebrated Neoplatonist philosopher, who lived and lectured at Alexandria in the latter part of the fourth century. She was murdered by fanatic monks in 415 A.D., and her books were burned with the Alexandrian library by equally fanatic Mohammedans. The titles of only three have been handed down to us — a commentary on Diophantus, an astronomical canon, and a commentary on conic sections.

After Hypatia history is mute respecting scientific women for eleven centuries. In the seventeenth century the names of three are recorded. The wife of the astronomer Gottfried Kirch, in upper Lusatria, assisted her husband and published almanacs. Maria Cunitz, a learned German lady of Silesia, edited in more convenient form the astronomical tables of Kepler, and in 1650 published others under the title of “ Urania Propilia.” Finally a French lady, Jeanne Dumée, published in Paris a “Discourse on the Opinion of Copernicus Respecting the Mobility of the Earth.”

The eighteenth century, so illustrious with famous men, gave birth also to six women all justly famous for mathematical talent and achievement. The first of these was the Marquise du Chatelet, born in 1706. English and German biographers declare that her writings are saved from oblivion only on account of her association with Voltaire, in whose companionship she pursued her studies. Yet it was no mean achievement to translate, as she did, Newton’s Principia” into French. She also published a work on physical philosophy entitled “ Institution de Physique.” It is said that in experimental science Mme. du Chatelet proved to be considerably more of an adept than her illustrious companion, and that, when both competed anonymously for a prize offered for a scientific essay on the nature of fire, hers received an honorable mention, his, none at all. Voltaire, after persevering but futile efforts, became convinced that his genius lay in another direction than experimental science, and decided to concentrate himself exclusively upon literature, where he achieved his fame.

Maria Agnesi, born at Milan in 1718, is said to have been a woman of wonderful intellectual powers. When only twenty years old she was able to discourse on abstruse questions of mathematics and philosophy in many different languages. At the age of thirty she published in remarkably pure Latin a treatise on algebra, with the differential and integral calculus.

Nicole Reine Lepante was born at Paris in 1723, and acquired distinction as an astronomer. She was a friend of Clairant Lelande, whom she assisted in the calculations of the return of Halley’s comet in 1757.

Caroline Herschel is more generally known to English-speaking people. She was the faithful and untiring assistant of her brother, the celebrated astronomer, Sir William Herschel, and in the course of eleven years she discovered five new comets. In 1798 she published a valuable catalogue of 516 stars, and later received a gold medal from the astronomical society.

Sophie Germain is in many respects the most interesting of this group of eighteenth-century women. She was born at a notable epoch for us Americans, namely, in 1776. We are told that in 1789, when a girl of thirteen, being profoundly disturbed by the mutterings of the approaching French revolution, she sought in her father’s library the means to distract her mind from the thought of impending disasters. Here she discovered the story of Archimedes at the siege of Syracuse, so engrossed with the problems of geometry that he remained deaf to the Roman soldiers invading his room. The child was seized with enthusiasm for a science so noble that it could absorb the mind to this extent, and immediately resolved to devote herself to the study of geometry. Self-educated, and in the teeth of the violent opposition of friends, she became the compeer and friend of the most noted mathematicians of an age noted for its great men. By correspondence on mathematical subjects she even conquered an intimacy with the great German mathematician, Gauss, writing to him, however, over a masculine signature. Her sex was revealed only when, during the campaign of Jena, Mlle.Germain interceded with the French general in behalf of her learned unknown friend, shut up like Archimedes in a beleaguered city, for whom, perhaps, she feared a similar fate. Mlle. Germain’s important original contribution to science is contained in memoirs on the mathematical theory of elastic surfaces, a problem for the solution of which the Institute had offered a prize. The first memoir failed to receive the prize, which indeed was not awarded. “The truth is,” observes her biographer, “that Sophie Germain, working, so to speak, by instinct, and without having regularly studied analysis, did not completely solve the question; but her memoir opened the way so decidedly in the right direction that from it Lagrange drew the exact equation.” The competition for the prize was offered a second time. Mlle. Germain sent a second memoir, and this time received an honorable mention. Finally, in the third memoir the persevering young scientist was fortunate enough to receive the prize. This honor only stimulated her energies to continue working on the same subject. She discovered remarkable theorems which Legendre inserted in his treatise on the “ Theory of Numbers.” In the “ Annales de Physique et de Chimie ” Mlle. Germain published researches on the laws of the equilibrium and of the movement of elastic solids, and in another scientific periodical a memoir on the curvature of surfaces. A philosophical essay written by her, and entitled “Consideration on the State of Sciences,” is remarkable for its breadth of thought, and for its anticipation of doctrines to be later enunciated by Auguste Comte.

I have devoted so much of the brief time at my disposal to Mlle. Germain because she may, better than any other modern woman, serve as a model with whom to compare others who may claim, often too lightly, a rank in science.

The last female mathematician of the eighteenth century is Mrs. Mary Somerville, who was born in Scotland in 1780. Mme. du Chatelet had translated Newton’s “ Principia” into French; Mrs. Somerville in turn gave to England a translation and analysis of the “ Mécanique Céleste” of Laplace. She also wrote a treatise in 1834 on the connection of the physical sciences, and her services to science were publicly acknowledged by her election to membership in the Royal Astronomical Society, and by a yearly pension of $1,500. Mrs. Somerville lived to such an advanced age that she was able to connect the traditions of the eighteenth century with the nineteenth. Mrs. Somerville, living until 1872, thus belongs to our own time, as well as to the brilliant epoch in which she was born. No English woman has, as yet, succeeded her, but I think every one is familiar with the remarkable triumph of Philippa Fawcett at the Cambridge examinations, where she ranked 400 marks above the senior wrangler. England literally rang with this triumph from sea to sea. The Spectator, in one of its solemn editorials, declared that this extraordinary achievement necessitated an entire revision of the current views on the natural capacity of women.

Miss Fawcett seems to have inherited her exceptional capacity from her father, also a talented mathematician, whose power of abstraction had been trained and intensified by a lifelong habit of mental work under the terrible affliction of blindness.

In America, Mrs. Franklin, while still Christine Ladd, so distinguished herself as a mathematical student that at the peremptory request of Professor Sylvester she was made a fellow in the mathematical department of the Johns Hopkins University, the only woman so far who has enjoyed this honor.

Mrs. Franklin is the Sophie Germain of America. Her original work in pure mathematics, in logic, and in physics is remarkable, and preëminently deserves commemoration on this occasion. She has published nine scientific essays.

Mrs. Franklin’s extreme modesty, as well as the profound nature of scientific tastes and pursuits, keeps her far removed from the publicity which confers superficial and transitory fame; but if there be to-day a woman in America entitled to represent women in pure science, to demonstrate, indeed, the capacity of women for engaging in science, it is unquestionably Christine Ladd Franklin.

In Europe, however, the young Russian, Songa Kowalewski, until her recent premature death, was the fitting colleague of our American mathematician. She was appointed to a full professorship at the l’niversity of Stockholm in 1884.

Like Sophie Germain, at the age of only thirteen Songa, starting from some elementary instruction in arithmetic, plunged all alone into mathematics and mastered trigonometry without a teacher. At sixteen she married a gifted scientist, who assisted her in her studies and secured her admission to the University of Heidelberg. She obtained the Doctor’s degree from the University of Göttingen, without an oral examination, on account of three essays, two in mathematical analysis, the third in mathematical physics, concerning the shape of Saturn’s ring. Some years later she discovered the complete mathematical solution of the optical problem regarding the movement of light in a crystalline medium. At a spring semester in Stockholm, Songa Kowalewski delivered a course of lectures on the theory of partial differential equations, and this was so successful that the following year she was invited to a full professorship.But this gifted woman died prematurely, after a brief enjoyment of the arduous duties of the position.

In comparison with the difficulties of the mathematical sciences all others appear easy. The natural sciences afford more scope for moderate abilities, and it is, indeed, surprising that, while so many women throng into literature, so few, as yet, have devoted themselves to these delightful pursuits.

Mrs. Susanna Gage, wife of Professor Gage of Cornell University, is a microscopist of recognized ability. She has made valuable original researches upon muscular tissue, and has prepared the microphotographs for several scientific essays of her husband.

Miss Julia Platt, a pupil of Professor Wilder of Cornell, has pursued morphological studies at both Cornell and Freiburg, and has published the results of original researches in the Journal of Morphology and in German anatomical journals.

In England, Dr. Frances Hoggan has published, in association with her husband, a series of researches in microscopical anatomy, principally on the lymphatic system.

Other women, English, Russian, and American, have written upon medical science, bụt I am not acquainted with other histologists or anatomists. Yet in the eighteenth century Madame Manzolini, in Italy, was made a member of the Institute of Bologna, and professor of anatomy in the university of that city, and contemporaneously, at Paris, Marie Catherine Biberan was preparing an anatomical cabinet, which after her death was bought by Catherine of Russia. Mme. Lachapelle and Mme. Boivin in the same century made important contributions to pathological anatomy, as well as to clinical midwifery. Doctor Gregory, Professor of Botany at Barnard College, has given me the names of half a dozen ladies, besides herself, who have made original researches in this science, which for ages tradition has assigned to women. A homonym of our own Elizabeth Blackwell, wife of Alexander Blackwell, published in 1737 an herbal, with colored plates of the principal plants used in the practice of physic.

A modern English botanist is Marianne North, who has especially devoted herself to painting in detail the flora of tropical countries. Her collections include upward of six hundred paintings, each panel including six or seven varieties of plants. According to Sir John Hooker, it is impossible to overrate the usefulness and scientific importance of this collection.

In the adjacent branch of natural history we find the name of Miss Eleanor A. Ormerod as one of the eminent entomologists of the day. She is consulting entomologist of the Royal Agricultural Society of England. She has written a manual upon injurious insects and on methods of preventing their ravages, of which Mr. James Fletcher, Entomologist to the Government of Ontario, says: “The advance made during the last decade in the art of reducing the injury done to crops by insects is in large measure due to the talented author of this book.”

Miss Mary Muretfeld of St. Louis has been vice-president of the Association of Economic Entomologists. Another female observer of note both in entomology and botany is Mrs. Mary Treat of Vineland, N.J.

In this connection should be mentioned Mme. Clemence Royer of Paris, born in 1830. In 1862 she made the first French translation of Darwin’s “Origin of Species,” accompanied by a preface and notes, which gave her an established reputation. Since this, however, Mme. Royer’s work has been in the line of literature and economics, rather than in that of natural science.

One lady, Miss Alice C. Fletcher, has distinguished herself in a somewhat unexpected field as an ethnological student of our North American Indians. Her work has received practical recognition from the National Government in an appointment as Indian agent, especially charged with the assignment of lands in severalty.

A Russian lady, Mme. Ragotzin, is noted as a scholar in a still more abstruse branch, namely the science of Chaldaic and Assyrian inscriptions. These philological researches, however, lie outside of the sphere of physical sciences, concerning which alone this paper is intended to report.

The longest list of feminine names must be culled from the medical sciences. Since 1872 in America 150 written contributions to medicine have been made by thirty women physicians. Only a very few of these contributions, how ever, deserve to be called scientific, for they are chiefly records of cases, or discussions on subjects from the purely clinical or empirical standpoint. The same remark applies, of course, to an immense amount of the medical literature written by men, only a small proportion of which is addressed to the solution of scientific problems, or is based upon scientific methods. Indeed the daily work of the physician is as yet far removed from that of the scientist in any department. Even biological sciences, upon which the art of medicine reposes, are most irregularly invoked in the actual practice of medicine, and really scientific habits of thought are foreign to the great mass of physicians.

Women who so largely enter medicine from the practical side necessarily exhibit this empiricism to an even greater proportionate extent than men. Still a few of the medical papers published are concerned with scientific problems rather than with purely practical questions. Among the 150 American contributions the following may be said to bear this character: An essay on basiliar kyphasis in relation to certain cerebral deformities, and some studies in sphygmograms, by Dr. Sara Post; a remarkable case of bilateral cerebral hemorrhage in a new-born child, by Dr. Sara McNutt; a study on myxedema, by Dr. Elizabeth Cushier; microscopical studies on hyaline placenta and on the uterine decidua, by Dr. Jeannette Greene; an essay on blood, by Emily White; studies in endometritis and a new theory on menstruation, by Mary Putnam Jacobi.

The number of women engaged in literature contrasts strikingly with the short list of women engaged in science. A volume entitled “Women of the Day,” published in 1885, contains a total number of 426 names. These include writers, painters, actresses, and singers, and women noted for work in philanthropic and public enterprises. Only nine among them seem to have even touched upon scientific work.

This fact, however, is not at all surprising. Owing to the unequal rate of development which to the present day has been permitted to women, the standard of education accorded to them has always been about an epoch behind that prevailing for men. Up to the present day, indeed, there has been absolutely no superior, or even commonsense, education for women at all. The few women who have nevertheless achieved intellectual distinction, have done so in virtue of immense native ability, which instinctively found its way, like Columbus, uninstructed, unpiloted, over unknown seas. At the most has been secured the personal aid of some relative or friend, and this as an offset to the violent opposition of other friends, or an entire family and social circle. Only immense ability is capable of achievements under such circumstances.

Enough, however, has been done to show that there is no physiological impossibility in scientific work for women. It now remains to insist more and more strenuously that the doors of the laboratory, as of the library, shall be thrown open to them; that early in childhood and during the formative stage of the brain’s development a strenuous education shall be secured, scientifically planned to favor the maximum development of brain power; finally, that the love of knowledge for its own sake shall begin to be diffused more widely among women. Hitherto the love of knowledge has either been forcibly discouraged in favor of every other conceivable motive, or encouraged only so far as it may be made useful for practical purposes.

The latter, certainly, should not be neglected. But underneath all practical activities, even for such strenuous mental work as is needed for the practice of medicine, there should lie a broad and deep foundation of speculative work done by solitary students aiming at nothing but the discovery of truth. Until this becomes true for women as for men we can not expect from women the contributions to scientific thought of which they are intrinsically capable. Minds capable of constructive scientific thought are always in a very small minority — probably must always be so — and it is probably true that the proportion of speculative to practical capabilities is still smaller in women than in men. The immense middle ground, however, of observation and experiment, of work upon details destined to be used scientifically by some mind of superior scope — this sphere is already perfectly accessible to women, may be occupied by them most profitably, and they should by every means be encouraged to enter in and take possession.



Source: The World’s Congress of Representative Women, ed. May Wright Sewall (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Company) 1894, pp. 195-207.