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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 53/August 1898/Women in Science


A GREAT deal has been written of late years in regard to the "new woman"; a somewhat vague term expressing the contrast between the clinging, fainting, willowy heroine, dear to the hearts of our grandmothers, and the alert, athletic, breezy woman who rules the world to-day. According as the phrase is used, it becomes a title of honor, or a term of reproach; but in either case we are apt to look upon the "new woman" as a fin-de-siècle production. The "sweet girl graduate with her golden hair," who

"Knows the great-uncle of Moses
And the dates of the war of the roses,
And the reasons for things—
Why the Indians wore rings
In their red aboriginal noses,"

we regard as an outcome of this century, and we have only just become accustomed to the idea of women physicians.

That women should hold professors' chairs in the great female colleges seems quite right and proper; but think of the thrill of surprise and dismay which would fill the breasts of the mothers of this land should a lady, young and attractive, be appointed to train the masculine mind at Yale or Harvard!

On women lawyers we still look askance, at least in the Eastern States, and despite the attractions of some of the female divines, it will be "long after to-day" before women clergymen, a strangely contradictory term, win any large or enthusiastic following.

The fact remains that, with all our boasted progress and enlightenment, our age is much behind the past, and for a perfect type of the "new woman" we must go back to Miriam, the sister of Moses. She was no shrinking creature, hiding her light under a bushel; an accomplished musician and a poetess, she dared to assert herself, and to lead the Israelites with timbrels and with dances in their song of triumph upon the overthrow of Pharaoh and his horsemen in the Red Sea. She was also, so says tradition, learned in the sciences, and invented the bain-Marie, the double boiler of our kitchens, which still bears her name. She was an authoress as well, and wrote a practical treatise on alchemy which is still extant. She was a true woman in her love of gossip, and was most severely punished for "evil speaking, lying, and slandering," when she and Aaron expressed their opinion of their sister-in-law, the Ethiopian wife of Moses.

In 1894, Monsieur Rebière, a French mathematician, delivered a lecture entitled Les Femmes dans la Science, which was published in a small pamphlet of eighty-seven pages; this brochure he recently enlarged into a work of three hundred and fifty-nine pages, including more than six hundred names of women more or less distinguished in scientific pursuits. It is true that in order to swell the number the writer has included some names on insufficient grounds, and others about which he has no definite information; but the greater part of the book consists of short, well-written biographies, giving interesting and valuable insight into the lives of the women of all ages and countries who have made useful discoveries or profound studies in the various branches of science.

Although M. Rebière has omitted Miriam from his long list, we find sufficient details concerning women of ancient and mediæval times to convince us that the wearing of blue stockings is by no means a modern fashion. 'Nor are those who adopt the azure hose always the unattractive and elderly; on the contrary, their portraits show them to have been very fair to look upon. Indeed, so lovely was the beautiful Novella d' Andrea, the daughter of a professor of law at the University of Bologna in the fourteenth century, that when she took her father's classes she was obliged to lecture behind a curtain, in order to prevent the students, one and all, falling victims to her charms.

Among the ancients, mention is made of Athjrta, sister of Sesostris, who is said to have been an astronomer; Berenice, wife of Ptolemy III, King of gypt, whose hair has given name to one of the constellations; Agnodice, the first female medical practitioner, who lived three hundred years before Christ; and the great Cleopatra, who is credited with possessing medical and chemical knowledge, besides occult powers.

At a later period we read of Hypatia, the romance of whose short and brilliant life is well known through the pen of one of England's most popular writers. She has obtained a place in the history of science by her extraordinary knowledge of mathematics; she taught geometry, algebra, and astronomy, and is said to have invented astronomical and chemical instruments. It is a remarkable fact that the story of the pagan maiden, murdered by Christian hatred, should have become transposed into the world-wide legend of St. Katherine of Alexandria, the beautiful, young, and learned martyr-queen.

Among the learned women we find St. Hildegarde, foundress of the Monastery of St. Ruppert on the banks of the Rhine, whose great work De Physica contains many personal observations of Nature. It treats of the rivers of Germany, of the nature and properties of metals, of vegetables, fruit and flowers, fish, birds, and quadrupeds. She seems to have been acquainted with the circulation of the blood, the physical phenomena of the tides, and with many other wonders of Nature. "The naturalist," says a recent writer, "finds in Hildegarde the germs of many modern discoveries." St. Hildegarde, who died at a great age in 1180, is a patron saint of physicians, and is often represented in art with a book or a pen in her hand.

The ancient universities of Italy early recognized the intellectual abilities of women, giving them every opportunity of gaining and imparting knowledge, and for several successive centuries numbered women among their most honored professors.

During the eighteenth century, three distinguished women were at one time occupants of chairs in the University of Bologna, one of the oldest and most important seats of learning in Italy: Maria Agnesi, Laura Bassi, and Anna Manzolini. Of the three, Laura Bassi was a few years the senior, having been born in 1711; she was a precocious child, and was early considered a prodigy of learning, being proficient in mathematics, Greek, and philosophy. While still quite young, she attracted the notice of Cardinal Lambertini, afterward Pope Benedict IV, and when only twenty-one was given the chair of philosophy in the university, a position which she held for twenty-eight years. In 1738 she married a physician, J. J. Veratti, and became the mother of twelve children. She is spoken of as an excellent housekeeper, a judicious mother, charitable and most earnest in good works. Two years before her death she was appointed professor of physics at the university. Her personal appearance is thus described by a contemporary writer: "Laura Bassi has a countenance slightly marked by smallpox, but of a sweet and tranquil expression; her black eyes are sparkling, and she is serious and composed in manner without affectation or vanity."

Even more remarkable seem to have been the attainments of Maria Agnesi, born in 1718. She was one of the twenty-three children of a rich citizen, who must have needed all his wealth to bring up such a family. One of her sisters was noted as a musician, and was the author of three operas. Maria has been called the oracle of seven languages, speaking French fluently at the age of four, and early becoming proficient in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, as well as German and Spanish. After spending her youth in the study of philosophy and philology, at the desire of her father, she devoted herself to mathematics, in which she attained such celebrity that she was complimented by Pope Benedict IV, who nominated her as professor of mathematics in the University of Bologna, a position she held for several years. At the death of her father she abandoned her chair and her studies to fulfill a long-felt desire for a religious life. She entered the Blue Sisterhood of Bologna, and spent the remainder of her long life in works of mercy and charity, gaining the name of the "servant of the poor." Her portrait and the contemporary accounts of her appearance show her to have possessed much beauty; in character she is said to have been modest, gentle, and almost timid.

Less gifted than these two women, but equally renowned, and whose knowledge has been of far greater practical value, was Anna Moranda Manzolini, a woman of humble origin, and the wife of a poor maker of anatomical models. Beginning as an assistant to her husband, she soon surpassed him in knowledge of his profession, and being encouraged by a friendly physician, she began to give lectures on anatomy. So great was her skill in dissection, and so clear were her demonstrations, that she soon acquired a European reputation, and her lecture room was thronged with students of all nationalities. After the death of her husband she accepted the professorship of anatomy at the University of Bologna, where her collection of anatomical models still bears silent testimony to her remarkable skill and accurate knowledge of the human frame.

Turning to France, we find at this period the Marquise de Châtelet, the friend of Voltaire, a woman "without faith, without manners, and without modesty," but deservedly famous as a mathematician, the author of many books, and the translator into French of the works of Newton; the beautiful Mademoiselle Delaunay, student of astronomy, geometry, physics, and anatomy; and others less distinguished.

A little later we read of Madame Lavoisier, who assisted her husband in his chemical experiments, learning English and German in order to translate for him the scientific works written in those languages, as well as engraving, in order to be able to illustrate his writings; the plates in his treatise of Elementary Chemistry all bear her signature. Madame Lavoisier was very beautiful, and her face is familiar to all through the celebrated portrait by David, which represents her standing behind her husband as he sits at his worktable. After the death of Lavoisier, who perished on the guillotine, his widow married Count Rumford, and lived to a great age.

Sophie Germain, born in 1776, is another French woman noted as a mathematician; she has been called one of the creators of mathematical physics. Her tomb at Père-la-Chaise is still often decked with fresh flowers. A high school for girls and a street in Paris have been named in her honor.

The recently published memoirs of Sophie Kowalevski have shown the difficulties which a Russian woman has to overcome in order to obtain the higher education, and they are also most pathetic, showing that neither science and learning nor the honors they bring can satisfy the deepest longing of a woman's heart. Full as are the pages of the record of her intellectual achievements, and the brilliant success of her genius, they are none the less the record of an unsatisfied and empty life.

Monsieur Rebière does full justice to the fame of Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville, and our own Maria Mitchell, whose names and achievements are too well known to need mention here, and he also gives short biographies of many women now engaged in scientific pursuits in England and America: among them Miss Agnes Mary Gierke, author of many important works on astronomy; Miss Charlotte Angas Scot, one of the great living mathematicians, born in England, and now professor of mathematics at Bryn Mawr; Mrs. Ladd-Franklin, a graduate of Johns Hopkins University, not only noted as a mathematician, but as a student of logic and physiology; and others. An interesting account is given of Miss Dorothea Klumpke, born in San Francisco, and to-day "one of the foremost astronomers of France," where she is on the staff of the Observatory of Paris.

In studying the lives of those women who have been distinguished in science we are forced to the conclusion that their genius has but a limited field; while many have obtained fame through their knowledge of mathematics and its application to astronomy, they show but little aptitude for the natural sciences, and rarely exhibit any inventive faculty.

That a learned woman can be a happy wife and good mother such lives as Mary Somerville's and Laura Bassi's show us; that learning alone does not satisfy we learn from Sophie Kowalevsky.

Perhaps those women who have found the greatest happiness in their studies are those who, like Madame Lavoisier and Caroline Herschel, have been able to assist some loved one to perfect his researches. As a general rule the scientific woman must be strong enough to stand alone, able to bear the often unjust sarcasm and dislike of men who are jealous of seeing what they consider their own field invaded. This masculine attitude has been summarized by De Goncourt, who writes: "There are no women of genius; when they become geniuses they are men."