Suitable sciences for gentlewomen

Women, Science and Medicine 1500-1700

February 13, 1998

My pen if ever us'd imploy'd must be, / In lofty Themes of useful Houswifery, / Transcribing old Receipts of Cookery: / And what is necessary 'mongst the rest, / Good Cures for Agues, and a cancer'd Breast.

In this poem, The Liberty, the 17th-century writer Sarah Fyge bemoans the plight of contemporary female writers, obliged to restrict the scope of their published literary endeavours according to social expectations on what were deemed suitable areas of activity and knowledge for women. A similar and parallel contest was taking place in the field of science and medicine, as this volume of essays edited by Lynette Hunter and Sarah Hutton amply shows.

Here, in its early years, the empirical and experimental bases of the New Science at once made natural philosophy accessible, and even deemed a suitable pursuit for gentlewomen, especially those whose familial and social spheres included men who were central figures in this sphere. The essay by Margaret P. Hannay on Mary Sidney, and Hunter's essay "Sisters of the Royal Society" emphasise the networks of kinship and patronage between these aristocratic women and the scientific men who formed their circles. Founding members of the Royal Society such as Robert Boyle and John Evelyn, whose wife, Mary, is the subject of Frances Harris's essay, encouraged and benefited by their sisters' or wives' participation in scientific work. The social standing of these women and their family connections protected and facilitated their scientific ventures, although, as the contributors show, they were not invulnerable to slights against their reputation or sanity. Hutton's essay on Margaret Cavendish and Anne Conway contrasts the careers of the flamboyant duchess of Newcastle and the pious and retiring Conway, with the attendant advantages and disadvantages of notoriety and obscurity. Reid Barbour describes the even more paradoxical plight of the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson, who took on the task of translating the De rerum natura of Lucretius, whom she herself regarded as an "atheist dog".

As Hunter's essay "Domestic medicine" on Elizabeth Grey and Alethea Talbot shows, there was a long tradition of women providing medical care for their own household and their community, and keeping manuscript recipe books of remedies for future reference. Grey, Talbot and Queen Henrietta Maria published collections of these medical and culinary recipes. Elizabeth Tebaux's essay on technical writing between 1475 and 1700 shows that women were a significant part of the target audience, and later, the authors of "how to" books on a variety of practical subjects. The techniques of preparing, compounding and applying home cures constituted what was known as "kitchen physic", and was regarded as an extension of women's usual activities in the domestic economy, such as gardening, the cooking and preservation of food, distilling and brewing. And midwifery was, throughout this period, still dominated by women, with the intervention of male surgeons occurring only in exceptional or emergency cases. Yet an underlying theme of this collection, and some of the essays within it, is the contested quality of women's participation in early modern science and medicine, particularly as the institutional, professional and corporate identities being forged in this period increasingly excluded women and reinforced gender distinctions. The foreword by Hilary Rose points out that this is still a problem in our century, as the long-overlooked contribution of the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA structure bears out.

This is not to say that the story told here is one of the suppression and elision of women's scientific and medical work. Rather, the authors try to convey some of the complexity, nuances and occasional paradoxes of a situation in which, despite the subsequent silence on women's participation in this field, scientific and medical men of the early modern period frequently called on the help, or deferred to the experience of, or were patronised by, women whose interests and learning in these areas was recognised and respected. One possible criticism is that despite some promises that we might gain insight into a "history from below", this volume deals overwhelmingly with the activities of aristocratic women. Only the essays by Margaret Pelling on the conflicts between older female medical practitioners and the College of Physicians, and Adrian Wilson's reconstructive account of the midwifery practice formed by Percival Willughby and his daughter Eleanor, are concerned with women of middling or lower rank.

After 1650, a growing need to differentiate the practice of medicine and chemistry by men from analogous activities by women led to a distancing of the laboratory from its origins in the kitchen or still room, and a trivialising of "ladies chemistry" and "kitchen physic". As Rob Iliffe and Frances Willmoth point out in the final essay, women had to contend with depictions such as Moli re's Les Femmes Savantes, which ridicule the pretensions of women who pursue science and neglect their domestic affairs. Iliffe and Willmoth's account of the lives of the astronomers Margaret Flamsteed and Caroline Herschel demonstrates, however, that, despite presenting her own involvement with her brother's work as a part of her household duties, it was possible for Herschel, who received the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828, to achieve a degree of recognition for her own achievements in a way that was not possible for her predecessors in the 17th century.

Full of useful examples and reflections on related issues of women's education, economic roles and publishing activities, Hunter and Hutton's volume should be welcomed by anyone interested in the history of science and medicine, and women's history in the early modern period.

Natsu Hattori is a research fellow, Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine.

Women, Science and Medicine 1500-1700

Editor - Lynette Hunter and Sarah Hutton
ISBN - 0 7500 1334 7
Publisher - Sutton
Price - £40.00 and £14.99
Pages - 292

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