Marcet, Jane Haldimand
MARCET, JANE HALDIMAND
(b. London, England, 1769; d. London, 28 June 1858),
science education, popularization.
Marcet was an influential writer of scientific books for general readers. She pioneered the use of conversation as a didactic genre, writing imaginary dialogues to introduce the elements of the sciences, including chemistry, natural philosophy, botany, and political economy. Her books were designed to make scientific knowledge available to readers who lacked access to formal education, but they also came to be used as textbooks, especially in women’s colleges in the United States.
Born Jane Haldimand, she was the daughter of a Swiss merchant and the husband of a Swiss physician. Although she was born and brought up in London, and lived there for most of her life, she retained strong connections with the intellectual elite of Geneva, many of whom shared a commitment to public education that was a legacy of the Swiss Protestant Enlightenment. As a young woman, she served as hostess at her father’s gatherings of intellectual acquaintances and supervised the education of
her younger siblings after their mother’s death in 1785. She cultivated a similar atmosphere of learning and enlightened conversation in her own household after her marriage to Alexander Marcet in 1799. During the early years of her marriage, she began to write scientific works in the style of dialogues. She completed Conversations on Natural Philosophy during this period, though it was not published until several years later.
The science of chemistry was attracting considerable public attention at this time. Her husband was lecturing on the subject at Guy’s Hospital, while Marcet herself attended the lectures of Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution. Davy was drawing large audiences of men and women from London’s fashionable elite to his spectacular and rhetorically crafted lectures. Marcet found that her grasp of chemical ideas was helped by discussing them with others. She and her husband invited Davy to dine with them, and the understanding of chemistry that she gained inspired her to write an introduction to the science in conversational form.
Conversations on Chemistry was published anonymously in 1806. The text presented the science in a domestic context, in which an instructor, Mrs. B. (perhaps modeled on Margaret Bryan, author of a popular astronomy text), taught her two female pupils, Emily and Caroline. Marcet disclosed her gender though not her identity in the preface, declaring that the book was intended particularly for female readers. She admitted some apprehension that chemistry might be thought an unsuitable subject for a woman to write about, but drew encouragement from the fact that various scientific institutions were then admitting women to lectures. She declared that the conversational style was particularly suited to their instruction, because women were not brought up to engage with abstract ideas or scientific language. The book nonetheless conveyed ample details about the latest scientific discoveries, including the new knowledge of gases, the powers of heat and electricity, and the isolation of new elements.
Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry was enormously successful. It was famously said by Michael Faraday to have inspired his interest in chemistry when he read it while working as a bookbinder’s apprentice. Faraday later declared that Marcet had been “a good friend to … many of the human race” (Polkinghorn, 1993, p. 29). Seventeen further editions appeared in Britain, updated by the author as new discoveries were announced. A French translation went through four editions, and there were twenty-three in the United States, none of them authorized by Marcet. Some American editors added their own footnotes to her text and placed their own names on the title page. Their interventions helped the book attain its widespread popularity in the curriculum of women’s colleges, where it was seen as having broadened the scientific education accessible to women.
At the same time, however, Marcet’s work consolidated a demarcation between polite general knowledge and the specific practical knowledge of the technical arts. Mrs. B. insisted to her pupils that chemistry was not restricted to the arts, and she refrained from teaching pharmacy on the grounds that it “properly belongs to professional men” (vol. 1, p. 3). Women were to be allowed a general view of the basic principles of chemistry, but it was not expected that they would engage in its various fields of practical application.
Marcet’s publishers encouraged her to repeat the success of her chemistry text with other works written in the same style. Her own interest was increasingly engaged by political economy, which she discussed with friends who included Henry Brougham, Thomas Malthus, and David Ricardo. Although, once again, doubts were expressed as to the suitability of the subject for women, Marcet’s Conversations on Political Economy was widely praised when it appeared in 1816. Three years later, Conversations on Natural Philosophy was published, building upon what was by then the author’s well-established reputation for clear and accessible introductory texts. Taking the same form of a dialogue, and with the same characters as the chemistry text, the book covered the topics of mechanics, astronomy, pneumatics, optics, and electricity.
Marcet moved from London to Geneva in 1820, after inheriting a substantial legacy from her father that allowed her husband to relinquish his medical practice. Two years later, she found herself widowed when he died suddenly on a visit to England. She divided her later years between Switzerland and London. Her last scientific work in the genre she had made so successful was Conversations on Vegetable Physiology (1829), based on discussions with the Swiss botanist Augustin-Pyrame de Candolle. Subsequent works included a primer on political economy for working people and a number of stories and pedagogical books for young children. Toward the end of her life, she finally allowed her name to appear on the title pages of new editions of her books, claiming the credit to which she was entitled for a remarkable career in scientific education that particularly benefited women.
WORKS BY MARCET
Conversations on Chemistry: In Which the Elements of That Science Are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments. 2 vols. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1806.
Conversations on Political Economy: In Which the Elements of That Science Are Familiarly Explained. By the Author of Conversations on Chemistry. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1816.
Conversations on Natural Philosophy: In Which the Elements of That Science Are Familiarly Explained and Adapted to the Comprehension of Young Pupils. By the Author of Conversations on Chemistry. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1819.
Conversations on Vegetable Physiology: Comprehending the Elements of Botany with Their Application to Agriculture. By the Author of Conversations on Chemistry. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1829.
Bahar, Saba. “Jane Marcet and the Limits to Public Science.” British Journal for the History of Science 34 (2001): 29–49.
Coley, Noel G. “Alexander Marcet (1770–1822), Physician and Animal Chemist.” Medical History 12 (1968): 394–402.
Knight, David. “Accomplishment or Dogma: Chemistry in the Introductory Works of Jane Marcet and Samuel Parkes.” Ambix 33 (1986): 94–98.
Lindee, M. Susan. “The American Career of Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry, 1806–1853.” Isis 82 (1991): 8–23.
Myers, Greg. “Fictionality, Demonstration, and a Forum for Popular Science: Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry.” In Natural Eloquence: Women Reinscribe Science, edited by Barbara T. Gates and Ann B. Shteir. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997.
Polkinghorn, Bette. Jane Marcet: An Uncommon Woman. Aldermaston, Berkshire: Forestwood Publications, 1993.
Rive, Augustus de la. “Madame Marcet.” Bibliothèque revue suisse et étrangère, n.s. 4 (1859): 445–468.
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