The lone genius is more linked than he thinks

Sex, Botany and Empire - Pandora's Breeches
August 13, 2004

These two accessible and attractively priced studies offer interesting guidance to the state of the popularisation of the history of science. Sex, Botany and Empire appears in Revolutions in Science, a series that popularises without losing a scholarly perspective.

Patricia Fara acknowledges her debt to heavyweight works of high quality, but she provides a distinctive note of her own with her emphasis on the sexual symbolism of Enlightenment botany, especially the implications of Carl Linnaeus' classification system, and her engagement with sex, gender and race.

Although these issues were discussed at the time, Fara's concerns are very much of the moment, but she is properly shrewd about the present-mindedness of judgements. Discussing Joseph Banks' status as a problematic hero for Australia, she shows how the botanist and president of the Royal Society became a symbol of Australia's independence and ability to make original contributions to world science; with the help of government funding, many of his manuscripts went to Australian librarians. But as Australian links with Britain have weakened, so enthusiasm for Banks has waned.

Fara also locates Banks, who features far more in her book than Linnaeus, in terms of a shift in the history of science away from interest in great discoverers towards exploring how science has become so central to modern society. Banks is presented as the "prophet of a scientific empire" that came to rule the world, placing "science at the heart of Britain's trading and political empire" - a simplification, not to say exaggeration, but also a valuable approach.

The social dimension of science is also the subject of Fara's Pandora's Breeches . This illustrates different ways in which women have contributed powerfully to the growth of science. She shows that romanticised tales of lone geniuses focus largely on men, while arguing that viewing science as a collaborative project prompts a different interpretation. Women, therefore, are offered not as an alternative list of heroines, but rather in terms of cooperation, through patronage, classification, illustration and dissemination.

As Fara notes, little information about domestic situations has survived, so it is impossible to discover how many women collaborated in experimental research or took part in dinner party debates. She reasonably claims that this female participation was greater than old-fashioned accounts suggested: experiments often required more than one participant, and women in the household provided a free source of labour. Thus, Mary Priestley was responsible for keeping experimental mice warm on the mantelpiece, while Marie Paulze Lavoisier recorded observations and filed the notes that her husband scribbled. Elisabetha and Johannes Hevelius and Maria and Gottfried Kirche are presented as scientific couples who worked as teams. Fara emphasises how Gottfried Leibniz regularly discussed science and philosophy with women and relied on female patrons for financial support.

The book proceeds via a series of pairs, each of which is the subject of a chapter: Women/science, Lady Philosophy/Francis Bacon, Elisabeth of Bohemia/René Descartes, Anne Conway/Leibniz, Émilie du Châtelet/Isaac Newton, Jane Dee/ John Dee, Elisabetha Hevelius/Johannes Hevelius, Caroline Herschel/William Herschel, Marie Paulze Lavoisier/Antoine Lavoisier, Priscilla Wakefield/Linnaeus and Mary Shelley/Victor Frankenstein, a partnership revealed as illustrating contemporary attitudes towards women and science.

Fara shows how du Chtelet played a major role in popularising Newton in France; her translations explained his ideas with clarity and integrated them with other philosophical systems. Caroline Herschel emerges as a sad case, rejecting the friendship of women, most of whom she denigrated as foolish, but finding no place in the world of men. Occasionally, Fara's judgements are overly critical. Priscilla Wakefield's Introduction to Botany (1790) is presented as making Linnaean botany accessible and permissible for women, but this can be seen as reinforcing their unsuitability for other types of science.

Pandora's Breeches is longer and more scholarly than Sex, Botany and Empire , but it shares the former's fluent style and a determined attempt to make the history of science readily understood as a social construct. As Fara herself appreciates, this book is less than a full account of the subject, but the tone and content of her approach are ably handled.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

Sex, Botany and Empire: The Story of Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Banks

Author - Patricia Fara
Publisher - Icon Books
Pages - 168
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 1 84046 488 7

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