Knowing Their Place: The Intellectual Life of Women in the 19th Century

Knowing Their Place: The Intellectual Life of Women in the 19th Century

by Brendan Walsh

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752498713
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 09/01/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 386 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Brendan Walsh of DCU, an author and historian, has selected the contributors for this book based on their reputation and publishing and research success within this field of study. Contributors include Emeritus Fellow of Trinity, Susan Parkes; Pam Hirsch of Newham College Cambridge; and representatives of UCD, DCU, Queens, Limerick, and Liverpool.

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Knowing Their Place?

The Intellectual Life of Women in the 19th Century

By Brendan Walsh

The History Press

Copyright © 2014 Brendan Walsh
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9871-3


'Starry Eyed': Women in Science in Nineteenth-Century Ireland



A recently published book, How Irish Scientists Changed the World, covering three centuries, includes essays on just two Irish women: the astronomer Annie S.D. Maunder (1868–1947) and astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell (1943). This is not unusual. In the 2003 publication Physicists of Ireland, covering four centuries, thirty-two men are included but not one woman (although the twentieth-century physicist Kathleen Lonsdale (1903–71) is given a mention in the introduction). A collection about Irish mathematicians from 1560 to 1966 has sixteen essays on various people, none of them women. An earlier compilation on Irish chemists lists sixty-three scientists – all men. Indeed, compilations on Irish scientists in general are sparse in their mention of women who played a part in the development of science or scientific institutions in Ireland. Mollan's recent two-volume work on people with Irish connections born between the early seventeenth century and 1916 who contributed to the development of the chemical and physical sciences contains 118 essays, five of them on Irish women. An earlier compilation of biographies of Irish scientists, Irish Innovators in Science and Technology, and its predecessors include eleven women among the 154 'pen-portraits of men and women involved in Irish science and technology'. Amongst them are half a dozen nineteenth-century ladies – entomologist Mary Ball (1812–98) and her sister Anne (1808–72), Mary Parsons, Countess of Rosse, photographer and philanthropist (1813–85), artist and naturalist Mary Ward (1827–69), astronomer Agnes Mary Clerke (1842–1907), lichenologist Matilda Knowles (1864–1933) and Margaret Lindsay Huggins (1848–1915), a pioneering astrophysicist. Susan McKenna-Lawlor, in her 1998 book on female scientists in Ireland, treats the lives and scientific achievements of these same ladies. They also figure in the Women in Technology and Science (WITS) publication, Stars, Shells and Bluebells, which records the life and work of sixteen female scientists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A companion WITS publication, Lab Coats and Lace, adds to the study of pioneering Irish women who sought to acquire a scientific education and a career in the sciences or technology and includes studies of veterinarian Aileen Cust (1868–1937), Alice Perry (1885–1969) – the first woman to graduate in engineering in Britain or Ireland, the aviator Lilian Bland (1878–1971), the astronomers Annie Maunder (1868–1947) and Alice Everett (1865–1949), the geologist Sydney Mary Thompson (1852–1923), Mary Andrews (1852–1914) and the Boole sisters – the mathematician Alicia Boole Stott (1860–1940) and Lucy Boole (1862–1905), believed to be the first female professor of chemistry in Britain. Four of these women – Agnes Clerke, Margaret Lindsay Huggins, Alice Boole Stott and Annie Maunder – were among the ten women who had achieved a high reputation in different scientific fields and who were shortlisted in a competition in summer 2013 to decide on Ireland's greatest female inventor.

As individuals, most of these nineteenth-century women had to acquire scientific knowledge and expertise without formal training, but all of these women came from aristocratic or professional backgrounds; they were in 'a materially privileged position and had the opportunity to "see" through the activities of their male friends and relatives how professional scientific life was lived'. Their material contributions to science were, for most part, published under pseudonyms, or as illustrators and contributors to the publications of their male friends and colleagues, or in partnership with their husbands. For example, Ellen Hutchins illustrated books and contributed records and specimens to others but did not publish herself, allowing her male colleagues and fellow collectors to publish her findings instead. These women's names recur in any study of nineteenth-century science and one would be forgiven for believing that they were extraordinary in their interest in scientific subjects.

Historical Context

However, women's interest in science was not a new phenomenon in nineteenth-century Ireland. Although women had benefited from the inclusion of girls in the terms of the Intermediate Education Act in 1878 and from 1879 could present themselves for the degree examinations of the new Royal University of Ireland (RUI), they were excluded from formal scientific academic education in Ireland until the 1880s. It was 1883 when the president of Queen's College, Belfast, J. Leslie Porter, reported that 'the Council of the College, at the commencement of the Session, resolved to admit women to the Arts Classes ... This is the first instance in which women have been admitted as Students to a University College in Ireland; and the result has been in all respects most satisfactory.' Before that, women with an interest in scientific subjects attended lectures organised by several Irish scientific and learned institutions – attendance being available to those who, or whose families, were members of these societies. From early in the nineteenth century the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) had opened its scientific lectures to all and in 1815 William Higgins's courses of lectures on chemistry were 'so successful that stringent "ticket only" regulations were enforced for admission to the four hundred places, some of which were appropriated for ladies only'. Dublin's Zoological Society from its foundation in 1830 admitted women as full members, and they, together with the female relatives of other members, attended the regular scientific papers presented at the society. When the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) met in Dublin in August 1857, 'the total number of tickets issued to Members and Associates was 2,005, of which fifteen were new Life Members, 276 Annual members, 900 Associates and 569 Ladies'. Trinity College Dublin admitted the public to some lectures; by 1868 many of the lectures were open to the public and 'ladies may attend all of them which are suitable for ladies, but [...] no one can receive a certificate of instruction unless he be a student in arts of the college'.

For the less well-connected, local Mechanics' Institutions and scientific societies, established throughout the country from the 1820s, offered the opportunity for self-help and improvement to many ordinary men and women who could afford the institutes' fees. Some of these institutions were unashamedly middle-class in tone but there were many others whose attention was directed at improving the moral and intellectual well-being of the working classes. Dublin Mechanics' Institution, for example, was established in 1824 with the stated aim of promoting the scientific education of artisans. The annual ten-shilling subscription entitled the members to attend lectures on various subjects, including the sciences, and to use and borrow from the institute's library. In 1839 females were admitted and by 1850, the Institution's Reading Room had 'crowded assemblages of readers that frequent it every evening, as well as a large attendance during the day'. The growing popular interest in science was encouraged by regular exhibitions of Irish industry, organised by the RDS from 1834, especially the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1853, organised by the society at its headquarters on Leinster Lawn in Dublin and visited by over a million people. This popular interest was encouraged by Irish scientists such as Robert John Kane, who saw scientific and industrial education as the best way of improving the economy of Ireland and the living standards of its people.

Interest in science was not confined to Dublin. In Belfast, for example, Belfast Academy and Belfast Academical Institution opened their meetings to women, and by 1836 a good many girls attended classes at the Belfast Academy and 'many adults, both ladies and gentlemen, attended the Academy Natural History Society meetings'. In Cork, scientific interest supported the Royal Cork Institution (founded in 1813) and in 1835 Denis Bullen, the professor of chemistry at the institution, could assure a government commission that 'The ladies of Cork have a great taste for scientific reading.'

By the mid-nineteenth century in Ireland, therefore, women were a familiar part of the audience at scientific lectures. For many of these ladies, attendance may have been because of a recognition of 'the importance of maintaining the "benificent activities" of science by their patronage' and they may have been aware of the influence this gave them over their husbands and sons, and the good example that they might set by their interest in science and the support of science. However, for others, their support and attendance was due to personal interest, a desire to learn and, in some cases, the opportunity these lectures offered to improve their employment prospects.

This study will focus not on those women who attended scientific lectures out of social interest, but will instead look at the activities and interests of numbers of other women who pursued scientific knowledge, who were not 'high profile' and whose activities have been barely noted or recognised. It will show that the very active scientific environment in mid-nineteenth-century Ireland was not exclusively male and that although, as in England, a large number of ladies attended lectures and demonstrations on popular science, there were also a significant number who participated in formal courses of lectures on scientific subjects. Their studies were facilitated by two institutions in Dublin: the Museum of Irish Industry and its successor, the Royal College of Science for Ireland (RCScI), which from 1854 until 1926 offered courses of lectures which were equally available to men and women.

The Government School of Science at the Museum of Irish Industry

In the 1850s the management of the provision of scientific education in Ireland changed. The newly established Department of Science and Art (DSA) in London determined that the teaching of science outside the universities should be put on a formal basis. In 1854 a Government School of Science was established at the recently opened Museum of Irish Industry (MII) in St Stephen's Green, with the intention that this new school would confirm that institution's role as a provider of industrial education. The museum building, with exhibitions 'embracing the general range of the industrial arts', contained 'a series of proper museum galleries, a large lecture theatre and laboratories'. When it opened to the public in 1853, the Museum of Irish Industry contained not only galleries holding a wide range of industrial exhibits and a lecture theatre, but offices, a library, the Geological Survey for Ireland and 'a special chemical department, with laboratories, for carrying out such scientific researches as might be required for the public services, and also for giving instruction in practical and analytical chemistry'.

The courses at the School of Science at the MII were intended for a specific constituency, Ireland's 'artisans and the industrial classes', and it was to be 'a centre and a school of Instruction and Research in the Industrial Arts – a School of Industry for the country'. The director of the museum and of the new School of Science was Sir Robert John Kane (1809–90). Kane was a Dubliner, second son of a prosperous manufacturer, and a Catholic. He was by training and education a scientist, internationally recognised by contemporaries as one of the best scientific minds of his day. By the 1840s his interests had moved on from pure science to its industrial applications and to 'promoting ... industrial knowledge' and scientific education. Robert Kane believed that the new institution had been 'founded ... for the benefit of the people' and was determined that it would be a place where 'the rivalries of creeds and parties [would] find no admission'. He carried his commitment to equality of access to scientific education further when he announced that in 'the formation of the classes of the present institution they recognised no distinction of sex'. Kane's commitment was supported by his colleagues, described in a contemporary newspaper as 'a first-rate staff of professors ... Jukes whose scientific and literary reputation requires no comment ... [and] Professor Sullivan, the talented pupil of Liebig'.

To deliver these commitments, the School of Science offered courses of popular lectures on scientific subjects during the day, with corresponding courses delivered in the evening for the benefit of those whose business prevented them from attending during the day. These 'popular' lectures were free and were attended by audiences of hundreds, both men and women. Apart from these popular courses, the professors and lecturers were responsible for more advanced courses in botany, chemistry, physics, geology and practical laboratory work, for which fees were charged. The fee was to encourage serious students and 'in order to test the reality of the wish to learn on the part of those attending'. Those who attended these advanced lectures were expected to have at least an elementary knowledge of the subject, although W.K. Sullivan on occasion complained about the poor arithmetic of the students in his chemistry classes. From the beginning the lectures went beyond classroom teaching and the students were required to apply their acquired knowledge in practical experiments in the school's laboratories. The courses were detailed and over the years the core scientific subjects expanded to include other subjects such as zoology, organic and inorganic chemistry and crystallography. These systematic courses of scientific lectures might be considered as the first fully organised arrangement, outside academia, to facilitate the access of ordinary people to popular scientific education. Examinations were held at the close of each session. The majority of the students who presented themselves for the museum's examinations were those for whom a certificate of proficiency in one of the industrial sciences might assist their future career, and successful students had the opportunity to recoup their fees by winning one of the monetary prizes awarded to the most successful students.

Very few records of the School of Science at the MII and its students have survived and the original student registers no longer exist. The printed annual reports of the MII to its paymaster in London, the Department of Science and Art (DSA), give only the numbers of students attending the various courses and the names of those who excelled in the examinations. These lists of prize winners, together with the reports of the annual presentation of prizes published in Irish newspapers from 1855 to 1867, remain the only constant, albeit incomplete, source of information regarding those students whose attendance at the museum's educational courses was more than passing or casual. It is from these reports that we know of the numbers and some of the names of the women who attended the courses of lectures in the School of Science. Out of the 330 students who were successful in the examinations at the Museum of Irish Industry and for whom there are records, at least forty female students are listed as having been awarded prizes or certificates. We have no idea what percentage of the student body were women – but, given the proportion of women among the prize winners, we can assume they attended in significant numbers.

At the school's first prize giving, on 28 May 1856, Kane congratulated these women students as follows:

[h]itherto it had been the practice not to include the female portion of the community in their educational arrangements, and, generally speaking, the whole scheme of education had been to supply scientific education to gentlemen only; but in the formation of the classes of the present institution they recognised no distinction of sex. Consequently, several ladies had been students, and in the competition for prizes distinguished themselves in a high degree ... The commencement that had been made that session in developing female talent in the pursuits of industry could not but be productive of the most beneficial results.

Fifteen students registered for the first course in natural history; in examination in May 1856 there were four women among the ten successful students and of these 'Miss Halgena Hare's answering was remarkable for its excellence, general correctness, and number of answers'. Her sister, Miss T.S.A. Hare, was awarded a certificate in the same examination and both women gave their address as 76 St Stephen's Green, where Mathias Hare, LLD was the proprietor of Dublin High School. Halgena continued her scientific studies, being awarded prizes in geology, chemistry and physical science in 1857 and 1858 as well as first place in the overall 'general' examination in 1858. She was described by Robert Kane at the 1858 prize giving as 'the most distinguished student of the present session', and the Lord Lieutenant, when presenting Halgena with her prizes, expressed his 'gratification at being enabled to confer the most distinguished honour on a lady, and his admiration of the gallantry of the gentlemen students in permitting themselves to be beaten by the ladies'. Frances Annie Hare joined her sisters as a student at the School of Science in 1857, winning prizes in zoology and botany, whilst also being awarded prizes at the RDS School of Design. The educational efforts and scholastic attainments of the three Hare ladies may have been intended to contribute to the family enterprise, the Dublin High School, but by 1862 the school had been closed.


Excerpted from Knowing Their Place? by Brendan Walsh. Copyright © 2014 Brendan Walsh. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents


Title Page,
Foreword Pam Hirsch,
Introduction Brendan Walsh,
1. 'Starry Eyed': Women in Science in Nineteenth-Century Ireland Clara Cullen,
2. 'The Fun of Being Intellectual': Helen Waddell (1889–1965) and Maude Clarke (1892–1935) Jennifer FitzGerald,
3. Intellectual Lives and Literary Perspectives: Female Irish Writing at Home and Abroad Kathryn Laing,
4. General Practice? Victorian Irish Women and United Kingdom Medicine Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh,
5. Intellectual Women: Irish Women at Cambridge, 1875–1904 Susan M. Parkes,
6. A Woman's Reply: Women and Divorce Law Reform in Victorian Ireland Diane Urquhart,
7. A Terrible Beauty? Women, Modernity and Irish Nationalism before the Easter Rising Margaret Ward,
8. Knowing Their Place? Girls' Perceptions of School in Nineteenth-Century Ireland Brendan Walsh,
Notes on Contributors,

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