Jane Marcet wasn’t a scientist, and yet during her life she exerted tremendous influence over the practice of science around the world. She was the author of what Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry calls “one of history’s most important chemistry books”, Conversations on Chemistry, which was published anonymously in London in 1806 – Marcet wasn’t named as the writer until the edition published in 1832.
She was born Jane Haldimand in London on 1 January 1769, the eldest child of a wealthy Swiss financier and an English mother. She was educated for the most part at home by private tutors; her father was said to hold progressive opinions about the education of women, and so her lessons included subjects such as natural philosophy, the study of nature and the physical universe.
The society’s ChemistryWorld magazine explains that when Jane was 15 her mother died and so she took over running the family household, which included acting as hostess for her father’s frequent soirées.
“The guest lists for these gatherings included notable politicians, literary figures and scientists, and gave Jane the opportunity for conversation with some of the best minds of her time,” ChemistryWorld says.
In 1799 she married Swiss-born physician Alexander Marcet, whose friends included Edward Jenner, renowned for his pioneering work in immunisation and the eradication of smallpox; and Humphry Davy, who has been called “the pre-eminent British chemist of the Romantic period” (roughly 1798 to 1837).
An article on the History of Scientific Women website says Alexander “was strongly interested in chemistry, and became a lecturer at Guy’s Hospital in London and a Fellow of the Royal Society. When Jane became interested in learning more about chemistry, they conducted experiments together in a home laboratory, discussing the scientific principles involved.”
Humphry Davy was one of the most popular speakers at the series of science lectures given under the auspices of Britain’s Royal Institution, and Jane Marcet was frequently in attendance.
However, although she enjoyed the “excellent lectures”, ChemistryWorld says, “out of general interest”, she found “the rapid demonstrations confusing”.
She decided that she, and perhaps other women, “would find the lectures easier to assimilate if they were accompanied by some background information”, so she set about writing Conversations on Chemistry: In which the Elements of that Science are Familiarly Explained and Illustrated by Experiments.
Cambridge University Press (CUP) calls Marcet “a pioneer in the field of education who wrote accessible introductory books on science and economics”, and “Noting that women’s education ‘is seldom calculated to prepare their minds for abstract ideas’, she resolved to write books that would inform, entertain and improve a generation of female readers.”
Conversations on Chemistry grew into a two-volume work that “swiftly became a standard primer, going through 16 editions in England alone”.
The books were presented, CUP says, “as a series of discussions between a fictional tutor, Mrs Bryan, and her two female students, the flighty Caroline and earnest Emily. [It] combines entertaining banter with a clear and concise explanation of scientific theories of the day. In volume 1 the girls are introduced to ‘Simple Bodies’ through such colourful examples as hot-air balloons and the spa waters of Harrogate.”
“Why should a book, so apparently amateurish, be remembered and admired two centuries later?” asks ChemistryWorld. “[Marcet] had made no original discovery or interpretation. She wrote simply to share her excitement of learning chemistry.”
Another reason Marcet’s books continue to be discussed is their success in inspiring others to take up studies in science.
One of her most renowned converts was Michael Faraday, the British chemist and physicist who contributed significantly to the study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry, born on 22 September 1791 in south London, who received only a basic formal education owing to his family’s poverty.
Faraday was not the only celebrity who admired Conversations. According to ChemistryWorld, “When an American student asked (American founding father) Thomas Jefferson how he should set about learning chemistry, he replied ‘Read Mrs Marcet’s book’.”
Jane and Alexander had four children. Jane died in London on 28 June 1858.
Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
Read science facts, not fiction...
There’s never been a more important time to explain the facts, cherish evidence-based knowledge and to showcase the latest scientific, technological and engineering breakthroughs. Cosmos is published by The Royal Institution of Australia, a charity dedicated to connecting people with the world of science. Financial contributions, however big or small, help us provide access to trusted science information at a time when the world needs it most. Please support us by making a donation or purchasing a subscription today.