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Jane Marcet

Pioneer in the Publishing of Scientific Literature for Women


Jane Marcet

While reading Creations of Fire: Chemistry’s Lively History from Alchemy to the Atomic Age by Cathy Cobb and Harold Goldwhite, I became intrigued by the story of Jane Marcet.

The following is from the preface to Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry; in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained and illustrated by experiments:

“In venturing to offer to the public, and more particularly to the female sex, an Introduction to Chemistry, the author, herself a woman, conceives that some explanation may be required; and she feels it the more necessary to apologise for the present undertaking, and her knowledge of the subject is but recent, and as she can have no real claims to the title of chemist.”

Jane Marcet (1769-1858) was the wife of Alexander Marcet, a Swiss chemist and physician. Having kept company with the scientific community in London by way of her husband, she was privy to and intrigued by the principles of chemistry, and so she engaged in conversations and performed experiments to further her knowledge in this area. She soon realized that it would be of benefit “to the female sex, whose education is seldom calculated to prepare their minds for abstract ideas, or scientific language,” to share what she had come to know. So she wrote her first book, Conversations on Chemistry, publishing the first edition anonymously in 1805.

The style of her book was indeed conversational. It described fictitious exchanges between a “Mrs. B” and her students Caroline and Emily, and this approach was eminently successful, for she published sixteen editions and sold an estimated 160,000 copies in the United States in the years prior to her death. While it is presumed that her work was influential in the lives of women, it is known that at least one man was similarly inspired. Said the English chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, “Mrs. Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry … gave me my foundation in that science.”

See the 1817 edition of Conversations on Chemistry.

Posted by Robin Kucharczyk, March 24, 2010