Women in science in the 19th century -
An excerpt from Beneath the Darkening Clouds
Alannah is visiting her old tutor in London, where she meets a doddering old Englishman,
who informs her that there are, in fact, women in science in the mid-19th century...
"Hm…hm…ah yes, there’s Mary Anning, of course!” he declared, with some excitement at having remembered a name at last. “She’s famed for the excavation of many fossil finds. In fact, I believe she’s been credited with one of the most complete skeletons ever dug up. Now what was the creature called? Something with a P, I think. Ply…, Plo…, oh, I forget. Never mind”—he flipped a hand dismissively—“in any case, her discoveries had quite a few
tongues wagging some years ago, I’ll have you know.”
I assumed this to be a relative observation—most people had probably never heard of
Mary Anning, and never would. “Fossils again,” I offered instead.
“Eh?” Sir Linklater leaned towards me, cocking his head.
“I was speaking to Mr Henderson about Richard Owen earlier. It seems fossils are quite a popular area of study.”
“Oh, yes, indeed they are. And people are happy to pay to get their hands on them, too, apparently. I read
somewhere that Miss Anning’s family made much of their money selling fossils they dug up. Imagine that!”
“That is interesting,” I agreed. Picturing Quin and me digging up old bones for our livelihood, I laughed,
making Sir Linklater smile at me in turn.
“But you’ll want to hear about other women scientists, won’t you?” I nodded. “Hm…let me think. I’m fairly sure there are more”—he wrinkled his forehead—“in fact, I know there are. But…I can’t seem to think of any just now.” He sounded rather surprised, and a little irritated, at this admission. He leaned towards me, one sharp grey moustache end coming dangerously close to my face. “A most unfortunate consequence of aging,” he informed me slowly, raising his eyebrows for emphasis, “is that the brain no longer works as well as it once did.” He sighed. “Ah…but what is to be done about it?” He shrugged his shoulders, and I patted his arm reassuringly, thinking his brain must still
be working quite well, judging by all he’d been able to tell me over the past half hour.
The old man took an absent sip of his sherry, perhaps to aid thought. If that had indeed been his aim, it seemed to have worked, as he suddenly exclaimed “Ada Lovelace” at high volume, making me jump and several panicked faces turn in our direction. Seeing nothing untoward, they soon returned to their own conversations, only to be thoroughly startled once more a moment later, as Sir Linklater yelled, “And Anna Atkins. Ha! Take that, old age!”
I laughed at the sight of the old man standing with a fist raised in triumph, grinning from ear to ear,
and the bewildered faces that surrounded him.
“Ada Lovelace and Anna Atkins,” he repeated, beaming, “how could I forget?” He slapped himself on the forehead. “Ada Lovelace—a countess you know and most gifted mathematician, by all accounts.” He bobbed his head energetically, making me smile. “And Anna Atkins,” he continued. “Oh, you would find her book so very fascinating, as did I. I have a friend you know—well, a friend of a friend, really—in any case, this friend is most frightfully interested in plants and such. And he managed to obtain a copy of Anna Atkin’s book—not an easy feat, by any means, since there are so few available—and he showed it to me. And how very interesting it was too. Not because of all the algae themselves, oh no—Miss Atkins examined the different algae in the British Isles, you see—but because of
the pictures contained in the book.” He paused and raised his bushy brows.
“What were the pictures like?” I asked, riveted.
“Cyanotype impressions, they were,” Sir Linklater pronounced slowly with an air of pride. “Now why can I remember that, but not the lady’s name?” He looked at me in some bewilderment before flipping his wrist and continuing. “Photographs—pictures so very life-like that it seemed to me the specimens
must be embedded in the paper itself!”
“Yes! My friend’s friend told me the impressions are made by placing the specimen on a specially treated piece of paper and exposing it to light. And apparently there’s a similar technique being developed to take such photographs of buildings, landscapes and even people, using special machinery.—Well, that does make sense now, doesn’t it? One can hardly fit a mountain on a piece of paper! Haha!”