Marcet, Jane (1769–1858)

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Marcet, Jane (1769–1858)

First English-language author of scientific texts for women . Name variations: Jane Haldimand or Jane Haldimond; Jane Haldimand Marcet or Jane Haldimond Marcet. Born in 1769, in London, England; died in London in 1858; daughter of Anthony Francis Haldimand (a merchant) and Jane Haldimand; married Alexander John Gaspard Marcet (a physician), in 1799 (died 1822); three children.

Selected writings:

Conversations on Chemistry: Intended More Specifically for the Female Sex (1805); Conversations on Political Economy (1816); Conversations on Natural Philosophy (1819); Conversations on Vegetable Physiology (1829); Bertha's Visit to Her Uncle in England (1830); John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy (1833); Rich and Poor (1851).

Though it may seem remarkable that scientific texts were once geared exclusively to the gender of the reader, it is perhaps equally remarkable that the mere possibility, and even the safety, of this kind of education being permitted to women was a matter of heated debate in the Western world during the period of intellectual and social progress that was the Enlightenment. One woman who contributed much practical assistance to the cause of genuine education for women (as opposed to what was considered necessary for cultivating female charms) was Jane Marcet.

Born Jane Haldimand in London in 1769, Marcet was one of 12 children, the only surviving daughter, of Swiss parents Jane Haldimand and Anthony Francis Haldimand. Her father was a merchant who later founded a bank, and the family lived in comfortable circumstances. After her mother died when Jane was 15, she effectively became the female head of their household and looked after her younger siblings. Marcet was typical of the young women of her era who had little access to the solid, rigorous education her brother received. However, she was probably tutored privately, like other young women of her class, and it is assumed that she may have gleaned access to more challenging scientific disciplines through her brother's course of study. She most likely also heard conversation on economics between her banker father and her brother, who later became a director of the Bank of England.

At age 30, she married Alexander Marcet, a physician with a successful practice who derived far more satisfaction from his experiments in chemistry. This was a relatively new field of study in the early 19th century, and Alexander wrote papers on the subject and was eventually elected a fellow of the Royal Society. When Marcet received an inheritance upon the death of her father, her husband was able to spend less time as a physician and devote himself to his experiments. The Marcets were part of a social circle that included many prominent and learned members of English society, among them Harriet Martineau, Mary Fairfax Somerville , Thomas Malthus, Jöns Jakob Berzelius, and Auguste de la Rive, and both these friends and her husband encouraged Marcet to write a "beginner's" text on chemistry. This came about in part as a result of her attendance at the popular Royal Institution lectures by noted scientist Sir Humphry Davy. The celebrated Davy was considered a dashing figure, and Marcet was one of many women attracted to his lectures. Yet she found that her lack of formal education, and a resultant unease with more abstract ideas, kept her from properly appreciating Davy's scientific concepts until a post-lecture follow-up with a friend made a great difference in her understanding of chemistry.

Marcet's 1805 book, Conversations on Chemistry: Intended More Specifically for the Female Sex, was meant to remedy this gap. Like many of her subsequent books, it was centered around a dialogue between a woman teacher and two young female students. This Socratic method had been espoused by Mary Wollstonecraft in her A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) as ideally suited for a variety of subjects in the education of women. Marcet was no doubt influenced by Wollstonecraft, who argued vigorously for parity in education between the sexes. Published anonymously, as was common at the time, On Chemistry was an instant success. It went through more than a dozen editions in both England and the United States (where it sold over 160,000 copies by 1853) and was frequently revised to incorporate the latest discoveries in chemistry. Somewhat ironically, its most famous reader was Michael Faraday, who as a young teen had little formal education but loved science and came across On Chemistry while working as a bookbinder. Considered one of the pioneers of electromagnetic induction, he later constructed the first dynamo, and throughout his life cited Marcet's book as a great influence.

Marcet wrote numerous other books intended for young women, and some for young people in general, a number of which followed the same successful formula as her first. Among these is Conversations on Political Economy (1816), which made her the first female scholar linked with this field. Still in its infancy at the time, economics was not yet fully considered a true academic discipline; it also drew disdain from many in the upper classes who preferred not even to think of such lower-class occupations as trades, much less assign them integral importance within the world at large. Nonetheless, in large part because of the success of Marcet's book, by 1822 the Irish writer Maria Edgeworth commented in a letter that "fine ladies now require that their daughters' governesses should teach political economy." Other books in this vein were Conversations on Natural Philosophy (1819) and Conversations on Vegetable Physiology (1829), both of which went through numerous editions. Two more works in the field of economics ventured from the formula of the dialogue between the teacher and her female students, but nonetheless presented concepts in an accessible manner. John Hopkins's Notions on Political Economy (1833), meant to explain economics for people with little higher education, is a collection of anecdotes centered around the simple laborer of the title and a fairy. Each tale provides a different lesson in contemporary economic theory, although some of those theories were later debunked. Possessed of an inquisitive mind, Hopkins has a large family to feed, but earns little money. In one story, he loses his job after the fairy listens to his complaints about the luxuries of the rich, which class she then abolishes; in another tale, he asks her to double his wages, which does not make life any easier, as he had hoped, but instead catapults both his world and the larger one into fantastic turmoil. Marcet's obvious leanings were further reflected in one of her last books, Rich and Poor (1851), which explains why each class is dependent upon the other (upper-class Victorians were rarely lamenting when they employed the phrase "the poor are always with us"). Enormously influential in popularizing science and in gaining respectability for women's studying of science, Jane Marcet died in London in 1858.


Blain, Virginia, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. The Feminist Companion to Literature in English. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

Millar, David, Ian Millar, John Millar, and Margaret Millar. The Cambridge Dictionary of Scientists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey. Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986.

Thomson, Dorothy Lampen. Adam Smith's Daughters. New York, NY: Exposition Press, 1973.

Zilboorg, Caroline, and Susan B. Gall, eds. Women's Firsts. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1997.

Carol Brennan , Grosse Pointe, Michigan

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