women in science

4000 years of women in science. The book The Hidden Giants published by www.lulu.com contains all the information.

Location: United States

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Chapter 3

“minds have no sex”

The names of early women are difficult to find; they are rare and precious each one. I am sure more women are there to be found, but I must move on through the centuries.

Lots of things were happening as the High Middle Ages spun to an end. War broke out in Europe. In 1338 CE Edward III’s claim to the throne of France precipitated the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453 CE). This was complicated by the Black Death – the Bubonic Plague – that first arrived in Europe in 1348 CE. Almost a third to half the population of Europe eventually fell prey to this devastating illness. War-torn lands with their sick and dying populations did not provide much freedom to pursue knowledge. We don’t find an excess of Western scholars female or male.

Despite the wars and the plague the Renaissance (rebirth) began in Italy in the 14th century and in the 16th century in northern Europe thus marking the transition from the Middle Ages to the modern age. In 1440 scholars fleeing from the Byzantime Empire founded the Platonic Academy in Florence, Italy. Then in 1453 the Turks conquered the Byzantime Empire, causing a further influx of scholars, teachers, and books into Italy. During the same time Johann Gutenberg (c. 1398 – 1468 CE) invented printing from movable type. Today most historians view the Renaissance as largely an intellectual and ideological change, occuring in many places at different times, rather than a substantive one. Access to scolarship still remained a privilege accorded to few people.

Just as Marco Polo had re-established contact with the Far East and the crusades had brought the literature and culture of the Middle East back to Europe, the 15th century had its own travel triumphs. Between 1420 and 1460 Prince Henry the Navigator (Portugal) explored the seas establishing trade routes to India. Of course, in 1492 Columbus sailed to the New World bringing new continents to the attention of Europeans. Magellan’s voyagers (1519 – 1522 CE) completed a trip round the world. By the 16th century the entire globe had been criss-crossed with the exception of the poles.

Western religion was changing as well. In 1483 Martin Luther was born. A year later a papal bull condemned witchcraft, and the inquisition began its insidious march. Just fifty years later John Calvin became a religious leader in Geneva, Switzerland (1541 – 1564 CE) and the Protestant Reformation was well underway.

Again war struck the land. The Thirty Years Was began in Germany in 1618, and war spread throughout Europe as part of the Franco-Spanish rivalry.

Both Nicolai Copernicus (1543 CE) and Johannus Kepler (1609 CE) advanced astronomical knowledge; Copericus by publishing the theory that the Sun is the center of the Solar System, and Kepler for suggesting mathematical laws to predict the motions of the planets about the Sun. Their works were known to the literati, but spread slowly through the general population. So although the Copernican Revolution represented a true change in world view, it took a few centuries to embed inself into the common consciousnous. Kepler’s laws are still used today to predict the motions of the planets. They are a fundamental and crucial part of modern astronomy.

As part of these turbulent times, women still managed to contribute to the scholarly life.

Something special had happened in Italy with the founding of the medical school in Salerno in 875 CE. As I said in the last chapter, from that time to the modern age, for over a thousand years, women equally with men have been welcome at the doors of Italian universities. I mentioned a few of the talented Italian women in the last chapter, especially those who worked in the medical professions. Here are four more. Beatrix Galindo (1474 – 1534 CE) took her degree in Latin and Philosophy from Salerno and went back to her home in Spain where she became a professor of Latin at the University of Salamanca and filled her idle hours by founding a hospital. We cannot forget Tarquinia Molza (1542 – 1617 CE) who excelled in poetry, music, mathematics, and astronomy. She became proficient in Greek, Latin and Hebrew at an early age. So respected was she that the Senate of Rome conferred upon her the singular honor of Roman citizenship, transmissible in perpetuity to her descendents. During her lifetime she was one of the leading figures of northern Italian musical culture. A reference for her is a book in Italian called Cronistoria del Concerto by Elio Durante and Anna Maria Martellotti. One can find portraits of her on the web. Lorenza Strozzi (1515 – 1591 CE) was born in Florence. She joined a convent where she became known for her knowledge of science, poetry, and art. As late as 1604 her hymns were still sung in the churches of France and Italy. Fulvia Olympia Morati (1526 – 1555 CE) who, at the age of 14 wrote dialogues in Greek and Latin, was invited to lecture at the University of Ferrara at age 16. She died before she could assume the chair of Greek at the University of Heidelberg.

By this time, the Renaissance was in full flower in Italy; for example, in 1503 CE Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. Mozans lists a number of Italian women in the 17th and 18th centuries who attained eminence in physical science, mathematics, the classical and oriental languages, philosophy, law, and theology. Fifteen of them are listed below.

Rosanna Somaglia Landi of Milan was a linguist and translator of the Greek poet Anacreon (who lived between 563 and 478 BCE); Maria Selvaggia Borghini (1654 – 1731 CE) of Pisa was a translator of the words of Tertullian (one of the very early Christian writers) and a poet in her own right.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646 – 1684 CE) of Venice was a prodigy of learning. She received a doctorate in philosophy at Padua in the presence of thousands of scholars. The University had a medal coined in her honor and still has a marble statue of her. Vassar College in New York has a stained glass window depicting her achievements. She studied Latin, Greek, music, theology and mathematics and eventually learned Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldaic (the language of an ancient region of southern Mesopotamia), and also French, English and Spanish. She studied philosophy and astronomy. Musically talented, by the time she was 17 years old she could sing, compose, and play instruments such as the violin, harp, and harpsichord. This is all well worth a statue and a window or two.

Eleonora Barbapiccola (born 1702 CE) of Salerno translated into Italian the works of the French philosopher-mathematician Descartes thus bringing his work to Italy. Her breadth of knowledge in science and mathematics made her famous throughout her region of Italy.

Famous for the phrase cognito ergo sum (I think therefore I am) the mathematician-philosopher Descartes (1596 – 1650 CE) dedicated his main work the Principia Philosophiae (1644 CE) to Elizabeth of Bohemia saying that in her alone were the talents for metaphysics and mathematics united. His work La géométrie includes his application of algebra to geometry from which we now have Cartesian geometry. Descartes had a number of women who were his disciples including Anne de La Vigine (b. 1684), Marie Dupré, and Elizabeth, Princess Palatine (1618 – 1680 CE). Descartes spent his last mouths in the court of Christina of Sweden (1626 – 1689 CE), a patron of the arts and sciences and quite learned herself.

Maria Pellegrina Amoretti (1756 – 1786 CE) was a doctor of both canon and civil law, perhaps the first woman to achieve this distinction. Cristina Roccati (1732 – 1797 CE) taught physics for 27 years in the Scientific Institute of Rovigo. Her complete lectures on Newtonian physics survive in manuscript today. Clelia Borromeo (1684 – 1777 CE) was fondly called by her contemporaries gloria Gennunsium – the Glory of the Genoese – because she was so learned in science, math, mechanics, and language. No problem in mathematics seemed beyond her comprehension. The clelie curve is named after her (1728 CE). There was also Diamante Medaglia (c. 1763 CE), a poet/mathematician who wrote on the importance of mathematics in the curriculum of studies for women. She had students from all over Europe study with her. Anna Morandi Manzolini (1716 – 1774 CE) held the chair of anatomy at the University of Bologna. She made a number of discoveries as the result of her dissections of cadavers. She made anatomical models out of wax that were highly prized by the University. These models were the archetypes of models used routinely in medical schools today. Laura Bassi (1711 – 1778 CE) was an anatomist and natural philosopher who received the doctoral degree from the University of Bologna. She held the chair of anatomy there and also gave lectures in physics. She and her husband, Giuseppe Veratti, created one of the best experimental physics laboratories known in 18th century Europe. There were so many talented Italian women who were free to explore their intellectual side.

Why was this so? Was this because the women followed the example of the ancient Roman matron who insisted upon her rights? I do not know. Perhaps the fact that Italy was the home of the Renaissance in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries also relates to this. Whatever the reason, these strong and learned women of Italy held firm for equality and achieved it. They asked for no favors; they simply expected the same opportunity as a man.

By the way, Salerno was probably not the very first university. The University of Nalanda was founded in the 5th century CE by the Gupta emperors in India. There were thousands of students and teachers at that school. The courses of study included scriptures of Buddhism, Vedas, logic, grammar, and medicine. Arguably, however, the first university was the Academy founded in 387 BCE by the Plato in the grove of Academos near Athens, where students were taught philosophy, mathematics and gymnastics. But Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt is considered to be the oldest university in the world. It was founded in Cairo in 969 CE. Zaitouna in Tunis, Tunisia, and Quaraouiyine in Fès, Morocco, were other Islamic centers of learning. China, too, had its schools. The emperor Wu-Ti (156 – 87 BCE) established a Confucian university for administrators.

What about the women of other European countries?

Denied the university freedom accorded Italian women, women of other countries had to have access to private tutors or be self-taught, something only the privileged few could afford. With the invention of movable type printing (1450 CE) books slowly became easier to obtain, and with books came increased literacy. In the Protestant churches women were encouraged to learn to read so they could read the scriptures. Nevertheless, many succumbed to the overwhelming pressure to behave as good and obedient wives and thus avoid education. The widespread witchcraft mania that strengthened through the 14th century kept many women and men too from seeking scholarly endeavors . Galileo Galilei (1564 – 1642 CE) ran into his famous trouble with the Roman Catholic Church for his insistence that the Earth moved around the Sun. Nonetheless women continued to argue for the right to study. Despite the barriers women of conviction managed to pursue scientific careers.

They must have been extraordinarily brave women and men. Some struggled against prejudice; some against their church; some even against their fellow scholars. A few are listed below.

Margaret of Angoulême, (1492 – 1549) queen of Navarre (in Spain), was in constant correspondence with the learned philosophers of her day and did much to further the cause of the literary movement in France. She created a court whose interests were wide-ranging. Her patronage earned her the title “beloved mother of the Renaissance”.

A French contemporary of Anna Manzolini was Mlle. Bileron. She also fashioned models of the human body. So impressed was the prince royal of Sweden by her work that he saw when visiting Paris that he offered her a position in the royal University of Sweden. France also saw her first mining engineer in the Baroness de Beausoleil (died 1642). She was deeply concerned about the mineral resources of France and foresaw how they could contribute to the country’s finance. Mozans gives the full title of two of her works:

Véritable Déclaration de la Décourverte des Mines et Minières par le Moyen desquelles Sa Majesté et Sujets se peuvent passer des Pays Etrangers, Paris, 1632.

La Restitution de Pluton à Mgr. l’Eminent Card, de Richelieu, des Mines et Minières de France, caches jusqu’à present au Ventre di la Terre, par la Moyen desquelles les Finances de so Majesté seront beaucoup plus Grandes que celles de touts les Princes Chrestiens et ses Sujets plu Heureux de tous les Peuples. Paris, 1640.

She was imprisoned for witchcraft and died before her release, seemingly a victim of the widespread witchcraft mania.

Princess Anne, the sister of Denmark’s King Frederick (c. 1546, probably Frederick II) was a scholar and skilled alchemist.

Ana de Osorio (c. 1630) was the Countess of Chinchon, Spain. Historians are uncertain how quinine got to Europe, but tradition gives the credit to the Countess. While living in Lima, Peru she and her husband predictably came down with malaria. The Countess decided to try a local plant remedy and soon recovered. The plant contained quinine, the miracle anti-malaria drug. She brought the plant back to Spain with her where it quickly proved its worth. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778 CE) who developed the scheme for naming plants and animals with fancy Latin names (that we still use today) gave the genus name Chinchona to several species including the quinine plant in honor of the Countess.

Marie Meurdrac (c. 1666) working in her own private lab in France wrote what is probably the first book on chemistry by a woman for women – La Chimie Charitable et facile, en faveur des dames. In it she says that minds have no sex. A facsimile of the cover page of her book can be found on the web.

Minds have no sex! How interesting. It is well worth discussing. Just as the results of science have no gender, minds have no sex. She was writing about opportunities when she wrote that minds have no sex. She meant that if as much energy was devoted to women’s study as to men’s study then women would equal men in scholarship. Given the same opportunities, there is no reason for men and women to differ in the results of their scholarship. In other words, minds have no sex.

Especially well known in the annals of science is Maria Sibylla Merian (1647 – 1717), a natural historian. She studied the flora and fauna of her native Germany and then sailed to Surinam in equatorial South America to study the plant and animal life there. She returned home where she complied all her studies into a volume in folio still sought out for its beauty. Her 1705 Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium yielded both great beauty and an important scientific discovery. She was the first to record the life cycle of insects, from egg through larvae and pupa to adult. She was quite well regarded by her contemporaries. At that time, much natural history illustration was often more fancy than fact. Merian painted on the spot, and although there are errors in her work, they are far more accurate than most. They are also some of the most beautiful natural history illustrations ever produced. Today her prints cost many thousands of dollars. Copies of many of her prints can be viewed with a simple web search. The interdisciplinary Essen Collegium of Gender Studies of the University of Duisburg-Essen/Germany presents the Maria Sibylla Merian Award for outstanding female scientists for their significant contributions to the sciences – it acknowledges and honors the accomplishments of exceptional women scientists. The award is given to female scientists for their achievements in the following disciplines: natural and engineering science, economics and medicine or international outstanding scientists (m/f) of all disciplines who have researched in the area of civilization and gender. Members of all disciplines are invited to apply. Candidates should have a PhD as a prerequisite for application. There are no limitations on the maximum of experience level. The award is endowed with 7,500 Euro. It is sponsored by the Deutsche Telekom AG. An independent, interdisciplinary jury of experts judges and nominates the award winner.

Anna Maria von Schurmann (1607 – 1678 CE) learned a dozen languages (among them French, German, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian), obtained a law degree from Utrecht University, taught philosophy, astronomy, geography, and theology, painted and sculpted. She was one of the many women who corresponded with Descartes. She wrote a book on Ethiopian grammar, on gender-neutral intelligence and medicine – an all-around woman – and thought to be the finest scholar in Europe who was a women. She insisted on education for women and argued for their right to chose whatever subject they wanted to study.

Women continued to contribute in medicine even though they did not hold the scholarly degree. In 1628 William Harvey had published his work on the circulation of blood, something foreshadowed by Hildegard (Chapter 2). Marie Colinet (c. 1560 – c. 1640 CE) treated patients throughout Germany and in 1580 was the first to use a magnet to remove a sliver of metal from a patient’s eye. Two others were Isabelle Warwicke, an English surgeon (c. 1572 CE), and Dorothea Christiana Leporin Erxleben (1715 – 1762 CE) the first woman to receive a full MD from a German university (University of Halle). Hers was an exceptional case, however, and required the intervention of Frederick the Great to make it happen. She took her exams after the birth of her fourth child. Trained originally by her father, the town’s physician, she had been practicing as a physician, but without the MD, until she was accused of witchcraft. She replied: “Fine! Here's my dissertation. Let me defend it at the university. Let me take the exams.” Officials debated for a year over whether a woman, so often pregnant, could practice medicine. They finally allowed her to take the exams which she passed with flying colors. It was not until 1901 that another woman received an MD from the University of Halle.

During the Renaissance both men and women practiced medicine. Then from about the beginning of the 17th century through the late 19th century, women were either excluded or banished to such roles as attendant, assistant or nurse. Before 1700 just about all babies were delivered by midwives. After that time midwives still managed to practice their craft (despite the French ruling against their being MD’s). Margarita Fuss (died 1626 CE) was so famous and in demand that she was on call throughout Germany, Denmark, and Holland. Jane Sharp (c. 1671 CE) was a well known British midwife who wrote the very popular The Midwife’s Book (still available from Oxford University Press). Her contemporary Hester Shaw made up to £1,000 per delivery, an amazing amount of money even today. Maria Louise Dugès La Chapelle (1769 – 1821 CE) was a French midwife who studied in Heidelberg and then returned to France to organize a maternity and children’s hospital at Port Royal. The earlier works by Trotula (see Chapter 2) were superceded by the works of Louyse Bourgeois (1563 – 1636 CE), midwife to the queen of France. Elizabeth Cellier was a British midwife (born c. 1640) who became a militant advocate of the education of midwives. She was implicated in a counter plot to the “popish-plot” to murder Charles II and reestablish Catholicism as the religion of England. Arrested, she spent time in the notorious Newgate prison. Eventually acquitted, she returned to an active life. In 1687 she presented the king with a plan for a college for midwives. Marie Boivin (1773 – 1841 CE) was a midwife in France. She received an honorary MD from the University of Marburg. In 1814 the King of Prussia invested her with the Order of Merit. These women tended to be exceptions rather than the rule. Except in Italy the practice of medicine was slowly closed to women not to open again until the 19th century.


That is a good question to which I do not have the answer. As gynecology became more and more “scientific” in nature, thanks by the way to the work of women, it was usurped by men. It was argued that women lacked the strength and capacity to function as physicians. But if women were edged out of medicine they remained in other fields.

Sophia, Electress of Hanover (1630 – 1714 CE), corresponded with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (a co-inventor with Sir Isaac Newton of the calculus). Her daughter, Sophia Charlotte, queen of Prussia (1668 – 1705 CE) invited Leibniz to Berlin where he founded the Berlin Academy of Sciences. Marie le Jars de Gourney (c. 1597 CE) was a self-taught intellectual in France who corresponded with Montaigne (French Renaissance essayist) and ended up editing his essays after he died. Anne Bacon (1528 – 1610 CE) (mother of Sir Frances Bacon, an English scientist) translated many Latin texts into English.

The guild of printmaking, a highly skilled trade, also attracted women. Before Gutenberg developed movable type, Dominican sisters often did the laborious typesetting for books, as well, of course, producing the gloriously beautiful illuminations. In 1501 italic type was introduced in Italy. Just sixteen years later, in 1517, Caterina De Silvestro added italic type to the existing stock of gothic and roman type. Upon the death of her husband, a master printer and bookseller, Anna Giovanni, of Vincenza, not only ran the business but purchased a paper mill in 1593 (a very shrewd business move). Charlotte Guillard (16th century CE) was the first well-known printer who was a woman. She was the widow and wife of two French printers, Rembolt and Chevalon. After the death of her first husband in 1519 she took over management of the print shop and the proofreading of the Latin publications and taught printing to her second husband. Her works were recognized for their beauty and accuracy. Among the publications she printed were a Latin Bible, Erasmus's Testament, and the works of the Fathers. A two volume Works of St. Gregory is said to contain only three typographical errors. The scholar Bogard started to write a Greek lexicon. After his death, it was completed and printed by Charlotte Guillard. Like the rest of her publications, it was noted for its elegance and accuracy. Her printer’s mark was a fancy circle with her initials inside.

So these women did indeed stay current with the natural philosophy of their day. They corresponded with the great minds of their time. They did as Hypatia did although many of them did not teach but participated from the sidelines of science by providing sustenance, understanding, and space for the male scholars of their day.

Archeology in the limited sense is a new science, but the art of collecting rare treasures goes back to the Renaissance and before. As with many other sciences, Italian women led the way. Women like Elizabetta Gonzaga (1471 – 1526 CE) Duchess of Urbino, and Isabella d’Este (1474 – 1539 CE), Marchioness of Mantua, collected not only antiques in bronze and marble but also rare books and manuscripts in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew.

Moving to the field of astronomy/mathematics, we now come to Marie Cunitz (1610 – 1664 CE) an astronomer – a woman who watched the skies. Her father educated her at home where she studied languages, classics, science, and the arts. Then she married a physician and amateur astronomer. Before long she was the primary astronomer in the family. At thirty she published a set of astronomical tables. In them she translated Kepler’s rather esoteric Latin writings and simplified his method for calculating the positions of planets by omitting the use of his complicated logarithms. The picture on the next page shows the cover page of that book. It was an important book, and it went through many editions. In later editions her husband had to write a preface saying it was all her own work. It was so useful that readers assumed he'd written it for her.

Cuniz's troubles didn't end with her death. The 18th century in Germany was not very hospitable to women. Astronomers of the so-called Enlightenment period couldn't digest her. Forty years after her death, one complained that “she was so deeply engaged in astronomical speculation that she neglected her household.” The woman once called the second Hypatia was demoted to second class status.

Kepler worked for Tycho Brahe, a famous Danish astronomer, known for his precise observational data. Tycho’s sister Sophia Brahe (1556 – 1643 CE), trained by her brother as an astronomer, also became a physician and treated patients who came to her brother’s observatory. It is said that when “Denmark remembers her Tycho she should not forget the noble woman, his sister who in spirit was more than blood. That shining star in the Danish sky is indeed a double-star.”

Cover page to the work by Marie Cunitz

Astronomy was the science of choice for other women including Maria Margarthe Kirch (1620 – 1720 CE). She married a Berlin astronomer, Gottfried Kirch. In 1702, as his assistant in observations and calculations she was fortunate enough to discover a comet. Unfortunately custom was not followed in this case; the comet was not named for her. Her husband died in 1710, but she continued to produce astronomical studies including a work on the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the year 1714. Her daughters continued the astronomical work after her death, and they calculated for the Berlin Academy of Sciences its Almanac and Ephemeris . These books were sources of income for that body. One finds a number of women in astronomical families. The two sisters of the director of the Bologna Observatory collaborated with him in the preparation of the Ephemeris of Bologna.

Far away in Mexico we find Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz (1648 – 1695 CE), a nun in Mexico City, who was a scholar of the court and an astronomer. She is still honored today for her poetry and perhaps is the greatest poet of the American continent of the 17th century. She wrote several secular plays as well. By the age of nine she had mastered Latin. Her personal library had over 4,000 volumes along with many scientific instruments. Dartmouth College has a project underway to present all her works. She believed in the sciences and saw in them no conflict with religion: The image on the left is adapted from http://www.edwardsly.com/ines.htm

“It seems to me debilitating for a Catholic not to know everything in this life of the Divine Mysteries that can be learned through natural means.”

When publicly reprimanded by the Bishop of Mexico City for studying and writing, she bravely answered back in a written document that still exists:

“Science and knowledge will strengthen faith in God, not weaken it.”

Elizabeth (born c. 1647 CE), the wife of the Polish astronomer Hevilius (1611 – 1687 CE), collaborated with him on most of his work and who, after his death, edited and published their joint work, the Prodromus Astronomia, a catalog of 1,564 stars. An engraving from their Uranographicarum star atlas is shown on the left. It represents the constellation of Aquarius (with thanks to the Space Telescope Science Institute and the United States Naval Observatory).

Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689 CE) was a British playwright, novelist, and translator of a work on astronomy: A Discovery of New Worlds (Entretiens sur la pluraité des mondes by de Fontenelle) published in 1686. She was perhaps the first woman in England to earn her living by writing. She is buried in Westminster Abby.

Maria Kirch Winkelmann (1670 – 1720 CE) was a German astronomer. She worked with her husband assisting him in his astronomical work. She discovered a comet in 1702. Discovering comets was a big deal in these days. They were considered important and unique objects. Computing their orbits was a laborious and difficult task. In the 21st century most comets are found by space probes or by amateur astronomers scanning the skies with their telescopes.

By this time the works of Sir Isaac Newton (1643 – 1727 CE) were making their way through the scholarly world. He codified the law of gravity and showed that it applied to objects not on the Earth (like the Moon) as well as the objects on the Earth – that law of universal gravitation foreshadowed by Hildegard (Chapter 2).

Emilie, Marquise du Châtelet (1706 – 1749 CE) was another astronomer-mathematician. She translated Newton’s Principia into French (c. 1759 CE) thus making his work accessible to her country. It remains the only French translation. She maintained an enduring relationship with Voltaire. He wrote of her that “two wonders have been performed: one that Newton was able to write this work, the other that a woman could translate and explain it”. Her views on the vis viva (momentum) opposed those of Newton. Hers proved to be correct. Other French astronomers are Mme du Pierry, the first women appointed to a professorship at the Paris Observatory (c. 1786 CE), and Mme. Hortense Lepaute (1723 – 1788), the wife of the royal clockmaker of France. Mme. Lepaute was hired by Lalande (the Director of the Paris Observatory) to assist him in preparing the orbit of Halley’s Comet, due to return in 1759. Such work required prodigious amount of computation, especially to determine the gravitational effect of Jupiter and Saturn on the Comet's orbit. She also calculated the conditions for the eclipses of 1762 and 1764 for the whole of Europe and published a chart showing the path for every quarter of an hour. She went on to publish other works and continued to work at the Paris Observatory until poor eyesight forced her to stop. She produced the table of the number of oscillations per unit time of pendulums of various lengths for the book that was published under her husband's name, Traite d'horlogerie. The beautiful rose Hortensia is named for her (shown below).

Mme. du Pierry carried on Lepaute’s work and computed tables for the lengths of day and night, and tables of refraction for the latitude of Paris.

These tables and catalogs were crucial for the development of modern astronomy. Each one contributed its part to a growing body of work that culminated in such great catalogs as the guide star catalog that steered the Hubble Space Telescope. Almost every satellite carries aboard a star catalog to orient its way around the sky.


Jeanne Dumée (died 1706 CE) was another French astronomer who tried by her own example to convince men and women that there was no difference in their brains. Her manuscript written in 1680 is still in the National Library of Paris.

She was another woman who believed minds have no sex.

Margaret Cavendish (1623 – 1673 CE) was the Duchess of Newcastle and author of The Blazing World in which the heroine makes a round trip of the Moon and planets and thus qualifies as the first fictional female space traveler. She was a colorful figure and a prolific and popular author. The diarist Samuel Pepys described her less kindly as “mad, conceited and ridiculous.” She published under her own name — a radical and deliberate infringement of contemporary proprieties — a huge body of work encompassing historical treatises, essays, poems, plays, and autobiography.

Marguertie de la Sabliere (c. 1640 – 1693 CE) was a friend and patron of La Fontaine, the poet. She received an excellent education in Latin, mathematics, physics, and anatomy from the best scholars of her time, and she typifies the learned French lady of letters and patron of scholars.

An outstanding scholar of these times was Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718 – 1791 CE) known as “The Oracle of the Seven Tongues”. By the time she was nine she read, wrote and spoke seven languages. At thirty she produced a text on mathematics “Le Instituzioni Analitiche” that earned her the chair of higher mathematics at the University of Bologna, a position she refused preferring to retire to her home and feed the poor. She also produced the solution to a curve heretofore unsolved – still called “the curve of the witch of Agnesi” and found in basic algebra textbooks. They certainly did not think she was a witch. The term comes from a mistranslation of the Italian for “to curve”. Aversiera is old Italian for the verb “to curve”. This is very close to avversiera, a word cognate with adversary (i.e. witch).

y = a3/(x2+a2)

is the curve she solved, easy for today’s computers; extremely difficult in the 1700’s. The French Academy of Sciences would not admit a woman to its august ranks, but M. Motigny, one of the committee appointed by the Academy to report on the work said:

“Permit me, Mademoiselle, to unite my personal homage to the plaudits of the entire Academy. I have the pleasure of making known to my country an extremely useful work which has long been desired, and which has hitherto existed only in outline. I do not know any work of this kind which is clearer, more methodic, or more comprehensive than your Analytical Institutions. There is none in any language which can guide more surely, lead more quickly, and conduct further those who wish to advance in the mathematical sciences. I admire particularly the art with which you bring under uniform methods the divers conclusions scattered among the works of geometers and reached by methods entirely different.”

The book made its way into French and English translations. Maria was honored by kings, queens, and popes but steadfastly refused to leave her home in Milan.

Solving a curve may not sound like much. What counted as success in science and technology varies from century to century. I cannot omit women from the story simply because they would not make the list in the 21st century. For example, to compute the orbit of a comet or solve a curve took great skill before we had computers to do the job for us.
The curve of the Witch of Agnesi.

We must judge them according to the standards of their own time and place.

There is something that encompasses not only the 21st century but also all the centuries before it. Successful science works repeatedly. The results from science can be tested, repeated and used by others. Successful science works; when the model doesn’t work, scientists begin anew to find one that does. Over and over they repeat their attempts until something, even if only the smallest of somethings, works. Small something by small something, the rewards from science accumulate and grow into ever more useful solutions for human problems.

Even in the far flung colonies of the Americas women were contributing. They were an inventive lot. In 1715 Sir Thomas Masters of the Colonies was awarded British patent #401 for an invention by his wife Sybilla (died 1720 CE) (he got her name on the patent!) for a method of curing Indian corn. It used hammers instead of gears to grind the corn. He built the device, made money, and became the mayor of Philadelphia. The patent was issued by George I:

“Letters patent to Thomas Masters, of Pennsylvania, Planter, his Execrs., Amrs. and Assignees, of the sole Vse and Benefit of A new Invention found out by Sybilla, his wife, for cleaning and curing the Indian Corn, growing in the several Colonies of America, within England, Wales, and Town of Berwick upon Tweed, and the Colonies of America.”

Eliza Luca Pinckney (1723 – 1788 CE) developed techniques for indigo cultivation in the early plantation days in the Carolinas. She raised her daughters to read Latin and Greek.

Inventors were not limited to the United States. During the time spanning 1631 – 1648 one of the most beautiful buildings in the world was built – the Taj Mahal – to hold the tomb of Mumtaz Mahal. Her maternal aunt Nur Mahal was an inventor. She invented the perfume base called attar of roses – still used in perfumes today. She also invented a method for weaving wool into luxurious cashmere.

I end this part of the journey with Bathsua Reginald Makin (1600 – c. 1675 CE) who was fluent in at least seven languages, English, Latin, Greek, French, Syriac, Spanish, and German. She taught languages in her father’s school. She became a tutor to the young Princess Elizabeth of England. She is perhaps remembered best for her essay: An essay to revive the ancient education of gentlewomen (1673), a polemic on the education of women citing why education has served them and their country well. Women were still fighting for their right to an education!

As I mentioned before, in general, scholarly pursuits were the peculiar right of the aristocracy. The bourgeoisie did not have the same educational advantage. And with time came the destruction of many of the great convent schools. First they lost their lands and then their independence, and finally the claims to privileges and powers now reserved strictly for men. The nuns were forbidden to teach. At universities outside of Italy the right to study came only with ordination in the Church, a state reserved solely for men. The status of women, outside of Italy, dropped significantly from its level at the height of the 7th – 11th centuries.

It seems that women lost rights despite the wonderful shining exceptions. Slowly over time we lost rights. Hopefully we shall see improvements, and Marie Meurdrac’s belief that minds have no sex will come to full flower.


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