Women Scientists in the Nineteenth-Century Physical Sciences

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Women Scientists in the Nineteenth-Century Physical Sciences


At the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was uncommon for women to be active in the sciences. While most science was still done by men as the century drew to a close, women had found opportunities for work in the physical sciences. New educational opportunities helped women find jobs in astronomy, chemistry, and physics. In addition, women educated themselves or worked with family members to do scientific research and prepare publications in the sciences, either as amateurs—like many of the scientists at the time—or as professional scientists.


During the nineteenth century, women's opportunities to go to school expanded. New colleges gave women the background and skills they needed to perform scientific research and also to find jobs in the sciences (for example, performing calculations at observatories). These colleges also gave women faculty the chance to do scientific research. Schools that did not formally admit women would sometimes allow women to attend lectures and gain an education (although not always a degree) that way.

Women also educated themselves for scientific careers, though this was a more difficult route. In addition, some women were educated by their families and some worked with family members (fathers, brothers, or husbands) to do scientific research. University-educated women also sometimes found it possible to collaborate with a spouse.

Some fields provided more entry points for women than others. Astronomy provided many ways for women to find work, although often in a supporting role rather than as original researchers. The rise of photography toward the end of the century gave women the chance to work with photographs while avoiding the long nights of observing that were thought to be too demanding for women. As observatories began huge catalogs of data about stars, women were able to make the calculations and classifications that allowed the catalogs to be completed.

Geology required fieldwork, which could be difficult for women to pursue, but it also allowed women to work as scientific illustrators and as amateur fossil collectors who could contribute to the growing body of knowledge on geological features. Chemistry and physics often required laboratories and equipment that women frequently did not have access to, but for some women a college education provided a way to break into laboratory research in these sciences.


Several schools for women were founded in the United States during the nineteenth century. Women faculty at these and other institutions prepared other women for careers in science. Sarah Whiting is notable for her work at Wellesley, where she created the first undergraduate physics laboratory for women and later outfitted an observatory, the result of a gift from Mrs. J. C. Whitin. At Vassar, Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) also educated future scientists and ran the observatory. In her early adulthood, Mitchell made astronomical observations for the U.S. Coast Survey with her father and made a comet discovery that won her a gold medal from the King of Denmark. Margaret Maltby, a physicist who did research in Germany, taught physics at several colleges and taught the first course in the physics of music.

American and European universities produced some well-known women scientists. Marie Curie (1867-1934) is possibly the most famous. She was for many years the only person to win two Nobel prizes in separate fields (one for physics and one for chemistry). She worked with her husband, Pierre Curie (1859-1906), to discover the radioactive elements polonium and radium and to study radioactivity, at the time a new property of matter about which scientists knew very little. Another European woman, Yulua Lermontova was one of the few nineteenth-century women to get a doctorate from a German university. She did research on several topics, including the chemical properties of petroleum.

Even women with university degrees often found it hard to break into the more prominent fields of organic and inorganic chemistry, but did valuable work in other areas. Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) began studying chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a special student before MIT formally admitted women. She was their first woman graduate in 1873. Her work in chemistry focused on practical applications, including municipal sanitation and home economics. She worked in fields as diverse as nutrition and oceanography, and was important in the early study of ecology. Rachel Lloyd, probably the first American woman to receive a Ph.D. in chemistry, studied agricultural chemistry, in particular the properties and uses of sugar beets.

Dorothea Klumpke Roberts was a high-profile astronomer of her day. Educated at the University of Paris, she went on to work at the Paris Observatory as their first woman staff member. There she supervised the Observatory's part of the sky-mapping project called Le Carte du Ciel. She became the first woman to make airborne astronomical observations when she observed the Leonid meteor shower on a hot-air balloon ride in 1891. She also lectured and published on astronomical subjects and, with her husband, took many astronomical photographs in the early part of the twentieth century.

There were not many formally trained female geologists in the nineteenth century. One of the few was Florence Bascom, who received a Ph.D. in geology late in the century from the University of Wisconsin (by special dispensation; again this was before women were officially admitted). She was the first woman to work as a geologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. She mapped rock formations in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey for the Survey and also taught at Ohio State University and later at Bryn Mawr.

Self-education was a more difficult process, but several self-educated women succeeded in doing notable scientific research. Helen Abbott Michael studied the chemistry and evolution of plants without the benefit of a university education. She had some medical training but did not complete an M.D. until after she began her plant research. She established the first scheme for the biochemical classification of plants. Agnes Pockels, also self-educated in her field with some help from her brother, did important work in the chemistry of surface layers (for example, contaminants on the surface of water).

New scientific projects offered jobs for women with college degrees as well as those who were self-educated. Observatories working on large star catalogs hired women to work as "computers" to prepare the data for the catalogs, and also to study photographic plates and classify stars. For example, Edward Pickering (1846-1919) at the Harvard College Observatory hired many women to work on the Henry Draper catalog. Working for him, Williamina Fleming (1857-1911) established a system of classifying stars that was refined later by Annie Cannon (1863-1941) and is the system still in use today. Antonia Maury (1866-1952) also worked for Pickering on classifying stars and on studies of the variable star Beta Lyrae. Most of her classification system is not used anymore, but she did establish a lettering system for classifying parts of a star's spectrum that can help to identify giant and supergiant stars.

Some women were able to work with family members who were scientists. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848), the discoverer of eight comets and the first woman to discover a comet, assisted her brother William Herschel (1738-1822) in his astronomical observations. Born in Germany, she visited William in England to pursue musical interests and ended up staying for the rest of her life, assisting in his scientific work. She recorded observations, made calculations, and helped him make the telescopes they used for their observations. She continued to work on her own for 26 years after his death.

Margaret Huggins (1848-1915) was a skilled astronomer, performing visual and photographic observations. She and her husband were both active in the emerging study of the spectra of stars, and worked together on an atlas of stellar spectra. Mary Somerville (1780-1872) was also supported by her husband in her scientific work, although he was not himself a scientist. She wrote on the solar spectrum and the motions of celestial bodies, as well as a book on the connections between the physical sciences.

Family connections helped several women in the field of geology. Mary Anning (1799-1847) worked with her father in his fossil-collecting business, which she carried on after his death. She had no formal training, but made several important discoveries of dinosaur skeletons. Orra White Hitchcock also did geological work as an illustrator. In the 1830s and 1840s she provided geological drawings for her husband, Edward Hitchcock (1793-1864), the first state geologist of Massachusetts. She was among the first of several women who used a skill that was considered appropriate for women—drawing and painting—to do scientific work.

These and other women of the nineteenth century did important scientific work, sometimes under difficult conditions, and paved the way for the women of the twentieth century to enter the sciences in greater numbers.


Further Reading


Creese, Mary R. S. Ladies in the Laboratory?: American and British Women in Science, 1800-1900: A Survey of Their Contributions to Research. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 1998.

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Shearer, Benjamin F., and Barbara S. Shearer, eds. Notable Women in the Physical Sciences: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Veglahn, Nancy. Women Scientists. New York: Facts on File, 1991.


Dobson, Andrea K., and Katherine Bracher. "Urania's Heritage: A Historical Introduction to Women in Astronomy." Mercury 21 (January-February 1992): 4-15.

Kehoe. "Brilliant Science, Bitter Scandal: The Life of Marie Curie." Biography 3 (July 1999): 88-94.

Opalko, J. "Maria Mitchell's Haunting Legacy." Sky & Telescope 83 (May 1992): 505-507.

Spradley, J. L. "The Industrious Mrs. Fleming." Astronomy18 (July 1990): 48-51.

Tickell, Crispin. "Princess of Paleontology." Nature 400, no. 6742 (22 July 1999): 321.

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Women Scientists in the Nineteenth-Century Physical Sciences