Women published in the Royal Society, 1890-1930

I’ve been struggling to think of a woman scientist to profile for Ada Lovelace Day!  Ada Lovelace (1815-1852) was a brilliant woman mathematician and arguably the first computer programmer, designing a program for Charles Babbage’s (never constructed) Analytical Engine.  Ada Lovelace Day was started in 2009 to commemorate the accomplishments of women in science, and bloggers pledge to post on a science or tech heroine.

The trouble is that I don’t know enough about any particular female scientist to comfortably blog about her!  I’m very eager to blog about Sofia Kovalevskaya, an amazing Russian mathematician, but don’t know enough to add value beyond her Wikipedia article!  (That will be rectified next year, as I’ve ordered three books on Sofia: a biography, her memoirs, and her novel!)

I do read a lot of journals, however, and I’ve noticed that a lot of women make an appearance as authors starting in the late 1800s.  I’ve been downloading the papers of these authors from the Royal Society, and I thought it would be nice to briefly describe the women and the work of the era from roughly 1890 to 1930.  The list puts the lie to the misogynistic claim that women have no interest in science or have made no significant contributions — especially since these papers appear before women even had equal voting rights to men in the U.K.! (Women’s suffrage was fully granted in 1928.)

Without further ado, here is a summary of women published in the Philosophical Transactions and Proceedings of the Royal Society from 1890 to 1930; hopefully this list will lead people to further investigations on future Ada Lovelace days!  It is not necessarily a complete list, but rather consists of authors whose names caught my attention while browsing.

1890.  Margaret Lindsay Huggins [William Huggins and Mrs. Huggins, “On a Re-Determination of the Principal Line in the Spectrum of the Nebula in Orion, and on the Character of the Line,” Proceedings, vol. 48, pp. 202-213].  Margaret Lindsay Huggins (1848-1915) worked jointly with her husband William Huggins on astronomical spectroscopy.  Both were talented amateurs who had developed a love of astronomy from a young age; in her teen years, Margaret constructed her own telescope and a spectroscope with which she observed the spectral lines of the sun.  In 1869, William used a bequest from the Royal Society to build a new observatory, and from it he and his wife (married in 1875) made important observations on the spectra, and nature of, nebulae.  (More information in the pdf here.)

1893.  Marion Greenwood [Marion Greenwood, “On the Constitution and Mode of Formation of Food Vacuoles in Infusoria, as Illustrated by the History of the Processes of Digestion in Carchesium polypinum,” Proceedings, vol. 54, pp. 466-472.] Marion Greenwood (1862-1932) achieved first class honors in school (in the tripos exams) and was awarded a scholarship at Newnham College.  After a year, she became a demonstrator of physiology at the college.  She worked on studies of digestion for sixteen years, and presented her results in person to the Royal Society, the first woman to do so.  Her research ended when she married biologist G.P. Bidder, but some of her studies are considered classics.

1893.  Helen G. Klaassen [J.A. Ewing and H.G. Klaassen, “Magnetic Qualities of Iron,” Phil. Trans. Vol. 184, 985-1039.]  Helen Klaassen was a lecturer in physics at Newnham College.  In addition to publishing research on physics with collaborators, she seems to be an early pioneer in the teaching of physics to women, as illustrated by this 1901 article in the Journal of Education.

1894.  Emily Aston [W. Ramsay and E. Aston, “The Molecular Surface-energy of the Esters, showing its, Variation with Chemical Constitution,” Proceedings Vol. 56, pp. 162-170.]  Emily Aston (b. 1866) was educated at Queen’s College, Bedford College, and received her B.Sc. at University College of London, where she began working as a research assistant to William Ramsay, Nobel prize-winning discoverer of the Noble gases.  During her time at UCL she authored or co-authored 12 papers, on a variety of topics in chemistry and beyond, including both organic and inorganic chemistry and minerology.  She later worked at the Sorbonne in Paris and at the University of Geneva, resulting in further publications.

1894.  Charlotte Agnas Scott [C.A. Scott, “On Plane Cubics,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 185, pp. 247-277.]  Charlotte Agnas Scott (1858-1931) found an early interest in mathematics thanks to math tutors provided by her father, President of Lancashire College,  when she was only 7!  She earned a scholarship to Hitchin College (soon renamed Girton College) at age 18, and four years later competed in the same Cambridge tripos exams that Greenwood passed.  To quote from the linked article,

Four years later, in 1880, Charlotte competed in the final examinations offered at Cambridge, the “Tripos” exams. Mastery of the Tripos exams deemed one qualified to receive a bachelor’s degree with honors (Osen, 157). Previously, the honor was awarded exclusively to male Cambridge students. Charlotte’s performance on the exam ranked her eighth amongst all the men in the university, yet she was not allowed to attend the awards ceremony solely because she was a woman.

Nevertheless, by 1885,  she had earned her doctorate from the University of London.  She taught at Girton College for four years, then went to teach at Bryn Mawr.  Again quoting from the linked article,

It was only a matter of time before Charlotte set many mathematical precedents at the college. Her list of accomplishments include setting the admission requirements in 1885 for Bryn Mawr College in arithmetic, algebra, and plane geometry. She urged the college to administer an entrance examination which was finally instituted in 1901. She established policies as Chief Examiner in 1902 and 1903 that are still in effect. Charlotte wrote a book entitled An Introductory Account of Certain Modern Ideas and Methods in Plane Analytical Geometry which was first published in 1894, reprinted thirty years later, and still widely used. Additionally, over thirty of her papers were published in the American Journal of Mathematics. In 1899 she became the co-editor of the journal, a position which she held until 1926. She received an acclaimed review from the American Mathematical Society (AMS) in 1896. Charlotte also served as the first woman on the first Council when the AMS began in 1894. She and her first Ph.D. student were two of nine women among a 250 AMS membership. She again served on the AMS Council from 1899 – 1901 and in 1905 she became the vice-president.

In the forty years that Charlotte Angas Scott spent in the United States she had attained a lifetime’s worth of success. She had inaugurated the undergraduate and graduate programs in mathematics at Bryn Mawr, published a graduate text, authored over thirty papers that were published in journals all around the world, and served both as a member as well as held office in several mathematical societies and organizations. She was the first British woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics and was the first mathematician at Bryn Mawr College. She is credited with being the author of the first mathematical research paper written in the US to be widely recognized in Europe, “A Proof of Noether’s Fundamental Theorem,” Mathematische Annalen, Vol. 52 (1899).

I can’t say it any better than that!

1895. Maria Mathilda Ogilvie [M.M. Ogilvie, “Microscopic and Systematic Study of Madreporarian Types of Corals,” Proceedings Vol. 59, pp. 9-18.] Maria Mathilda Ogilvie (1864-1939) earned her bachelor of science degree at the University of London in 1890, specializing in geology, botany and zoology.  She earned her doctorate from the same institution in 1893.  Curiously, the Wikipedia article claims that Ogilvie is the first woman to get a doctorate at University of London, but this conflicts with the description of Charlotte Agnas Scott; I’ll have to do some more investigating…

1896.  Lucy Everest Boole [W.R. Dunstan and L.E. Boole, “An Enquiry into the Nature of the Vesicating Constituent of Croton Oil,” Proceedings Vol. 59, pp. 237-249.]  This is a fun one! Lucy Everest Boole (1862-1905) was the daughter of Mary Everest Boole, a pioneering mathematician and educator, and George Boole, an even more famous mathematician.  Mary’s uncle, and Lucy’s great-uncle, was Colonel Sir George Everest, who had a certain mountain named after him.  To quote from the above link,

She was a chemist and was the second woman to pass the London School of Pharmacy’s major examination in 1888 and was the first woman to formally do research in pharmaceutical chemistry. She was assistant to the chemist Wyndham Dunstan, Professor of Chemistry to the Pharmaceutical Society. Her method of analysis of tarter emetic was the official method of assay until 1963.

Lucy’s mother became a great believer in psychic powers and the spirit world, and her grandfather was a huge proponent of homeopathy.  Family gatherings must have been a HOOT!

1897.  Alice Lee [K. Pearson, A. Lee and G.U. Yule, “On the Distribution of Frequency (Variation and Correlation) of the Barometric Height at Divers Stations,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 190, pp. 423-469.]  Alice Lee is another researcher that I cannot find much information about.  She worked with Karl Pearson, founder of the discipline of mathematical statistics.

1898. Catherine A. Raisin [C.A. Raisin, “On Certain Structures Formed in the Drying of a Fluid with Particles in Suspension,” Proceedings, Vol. 63, pp. 217-227.] Catherine A. Raisin (1855-1945) earned her B.Sc. with honors at the University of London in 1884 in geology and zoology.  She remained there as a research assistant to Professor Bonney.  To quote the linked article,

The Geological Society of London awarded her the Lyell Fund in 1893, the first woman to receive the honour, but as women were not then allowed to attend meetings the award had to be accepted by Bonney on her behalf. She was awarded a DSc in 1898, was a demonstrator in botany at Bedford College for Women (1889–90) and became head of the geology department in 1890, the first woman to do so in a British university, holding the post until her retirement in 1920. She became a Fellow of University College in 1902 and a Fellow of the Geological Society of London in 1919, when women were admitted.

More information can be found in the following essay.

1902.  Hertha Aryton [H. Aryton, “The Mechanism of the Electric Arc,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 199, pp. 299-336.]  Phoebe Sarah Marks (self-changed to Hertha when she was a teenager) was another brilliant mathematician, and she formed a mathematics club at Girton College with classmate Charlotte Scott.  To quote from the linked article,

Marks began her scientific studies by attending evening classes in physics at Finsbury Technical College given by Professor William Ayrton, whom she married in 1885. She assisted her husband with his experiments in physics and electricity, becoming an acknowledged expert on the subject of the electric arc. She published several papers from her own research in electric arcs in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of London and The Electrician, and published the book The Electric Arc in 1902… Hertha Ayrton had been elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In 1902 she became the first woman nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Because she was married, however, legal counsel advised that the charter of the Royal Society did not allow the Society to elect her to this distinction.

Curiously, we have another contradiction in this linked article: it claims that Hertha was the first woman to read her own paper before the Royal Society, though that claim has also been made for Marion Greenwood.  This is another question I’ll have to research further…

1909. Florence Isaac [H.A. Miers and F. Isaac, “On the Spontaneous Crystallisation of Monochloracetic Acid and Its Mixtures with Naphthalene,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 209, pp. 337-377. ]  I have been unable to find much information about Florence Isaac, save for a notice in the Journal of Education.  In 1906 we find that,

The Council of Somerville College has awarded a Fellowship to Miss Florence Isaac (Girton College, Cambridge, and Society of Home Students, Oxford), who has undertaken an investigation of the refractive indices and other properties of crystallizing solutions, and a study of the early stages of crystallization.

We see a number of significant names here: Girton College was also the college of Aryton and Scott.  Somerville College was founded through 1878-1879 as a place of higher education for women, named after Mary Somerville (1780-1872), a brilliant mathematician and scientist whom I’ve discussed before.

1914.  Maude Cuthbertson [C. Cuthbertson and M. Cutherbertson, “On the Refraction and Dispersion of the Halogens, Halogen Acids, Ozone, Steam, Oxides of Nitrogen and Ammonia,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 213, pp. 1-26.  Here we have another husband and wife team!  There is little available online about Maude that I could find; it seems she earned no formal degree but helped her husband with his experiments.  The obituary for Clive Cuthbertson provides some tantalizing hints of her character:

As may be seen from the classified list of Cuthbertson’s scientific communications, he was associated with his wife in all those later than 1908. The measurement of the refractivities of gaseous substances requires two collaborators, one to control the increase in concentration of the gas or vapour in the refractometer tube, and the other to count the interference bands which pass a fiducial point in the eyepiece of the observing telescope during that increase in the concentration. In this work Mrs Cuthbertson rendered signal aid to her husband, for the number of interference bands to be counted varied from 500 to 800.

In 1917 Cuthbertson and his wife paid a visit to his uncle who lived at West Derby, Liverpool, and during their visit they called on me at the university and took tea in my room with my secretary, Miss E. E. Kelly, and myself. This was the first time that I met Mrs Cuthbertson. It has been my privilege to meet her several times during the last nine months and I have to record my most grateful thanks to her for the help she has given me in writing this obituary notice of her husband.

1919.  C. Elspeth Bousfield [W.R. Bousfield and C.E. Bousfield, “The Specific Heat of Aqueous Solutions, with Special Reference to Sodium and Potassium Chlorides,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 218, pp. 119-156.] Here we also have family working together, but in this case it is a father-daughter team!  I have been unable to find much about C. Elspeth Bousfield, daughter of William Robert Bousfield, lawyer, politician and scientist.  The only mention I have found is from William’s obituary,

The Transactions of the Royal Society for 1919 contains a paper by Bousfield and his daughter C. Elspeth Bousfield on ‘The specific heat of aqueous solutions’. This paper continues the former work on the specific heat of water. Whereas the specific heat of water shows a minimum at a temperature which in Bousfield’s experiments is about 25º, solutions of potassium and sodium chlorides give curves which approach straight lines as the concentration of the solutions increases. He had found formerly somewhat similar phenomena for the density of solutions of sodium hydroxide. Bousfield gives reasons to suppose that the specific heat of the solute remains constant for isothermal dilutions, whilst the lowering of the mean specific heat of the water is proportional to its mean specific contraction. He concludes that the specific heat of the solute is practically constant at all dilutions, while the dissolution of the solute lowers the mean specific heat of all the water (both free and combined) by an amount propor- tional to the mean specific contraction of the water.

Again with his daughter, Bousfield published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society for 1923 a paper on the ‘Vapour pressure and density of sodium chloride solutions’, with the primary object of obtaining a series of accurate determina- tions of the vapour pressure of aqueous sodium chloride solutions at 18? C., which might be used as a scale of reference for determining the vapour pressure of other salt solutions at the same temperature.

Bousfield apparently treated science as a family affair; when his ailing health led him to give up experimental work and write on psychology, he published papers with his son.

1924.  Kathleen Yardley [W.T. Astbury and K. Yardley, “Tabulated Data for the Examination of the 230 Space-Groups by Homogeneous X-Rays,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 224, pp. 221-257.]  Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale (1903-1971) was another brilliant woman mathematician.  To quote from the above link,

Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale, co-developer of the space group tables in crystallography and the scientist who determined the structure of benzene, was born on January 28, 1903 in Newbridge, near Dublin, Ireland.

When Kathleen Lonsdale was young her parents separated, and her mother took the children to the London area. Her father, who was an avid reader and a self-taught mathematician, positively influenced Lonsdale.

Kathleen Lonsdale finished high school with an all around excellent record. She went on to complete a B.Sc. degree in physics at Bedford College, a women’s college that is part of the University of London. Her performance on the University’s written exam, the highest in 10 years, resulted in Nobel laureate Professor W. Henry Bragg inviting her to work at the Royal Institution under him for a master of science degree. Here she earned both an M.Sc. (1924) and later a D.Sc. (1927).

Yardley married Thomas Lonsdale on August 27, 1927. They raised three children, and Thomas was very supportive of Kathleen’s professional career.

While working with Bragg, Lonsdale began her lifelong work of developing space group tables, which are invaluable to crystallographers. During a few years at Leeds, she determined the structure of benzene. Data obtained from some large crystals of hexamethylbenzene given to her by Professor Christopher K. Ingold irrefutably showed that benzene was planar.

Lonsdale was one of the first two women to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Lonsdale applied and was appointed Reader in Crystallography at University College, London in 1946. Within three years she was promoted to Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Crystallography. She was the first female professor at University College. She was also the first woman president of both the International Union of Crystallography and the British Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to her significant scientific achievements, Lonsdale was an active advocate for world peace and prison reform.

She worked with W.H. Bragg and discovered the structure of benzene!  I hardly need to say more.

1930.  Letitia Chitty [R.V. Southwell and L. Chitty, “On the Problem of Hydrodynamic Stability. I. Uniform Shearing Motion in a Viscous Fluid,” Phil. Trans. A, Vol. 229, pp. 205-253.]  Letitia Chitty (1897-1982) was another graduate of Newnham College, like Marion Greenwood.  After completing the mathematics tripos at Newnham, she went to work for the  Admiralty Air Department to perform stress analysis on experimental airplanes.  From 1934 onwards she worked at Imperial College and during WWII she worked on the safety of shelters, bridges, and buildings.

Even at this late date, Letitia managed to accomplish many firsts for women in science.  She was the first woman member of the Technical Committee of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and became the first woman to receive the Telford Gold Medal.


As noted, this list is by no means complete!  Putting it together was a nice crash course for me on the introduction of women into science and scientific society, and hopefully from the list above the reader can see that the gender has proven itself admirably.  Though people have argued historically that women have little interest in science and mathematics, this list demonstrates the opposite: women have worked hard to earn educations and careers in science, and have pretty much smashed through a variety of glass ceilings that were put in front of them in academia.  When they got through those ceilings, they excelled at math and science.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this whirlwind tour of women published in the Royal Society!  This should give people some nice figures to investigate for next year’s Ada Lovelace day…

This entry was posted in General science, History of science, Women in science. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Women published in the Royal Society, 1890-1930

  1. Pingback: Emmy and the Habilitation « The Renaissance Mathematicus

  2. Pingback: Happy Ada Lovelace Day! » The Adventures of Tobasco da Gama

  3. Great post, these women are all important. If only they knew we’d be blogging about them years later. If only they knew what blogs are.

    • Thanks! I do wish these women had access to blogging, or at the very least had documented more their thoughts and impressions of their era. I imagine most of them didn’t really think too much about the significance of their pioneering roles in science.

  4. aseoptics says:

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  6. Caroline Herschel was certainly involved with Royal Society in an earlier period, I think several comet discoveries of hers were communicated – I’m not sure she was able to attend any of the formal meetings. Wondering about Agnes Pockels…

    It’s sort of ironic since I’m reading the Sprat history of the RS; he’s just made great play of how the Society accepts Fellows of any religion and welcomes members from overseas – which I understand would have been fairly radical concepts at the time, no mention of women though!

    • She certainly was involved, though it was an earlier period than I looked at! It is a shame she wasn’t allowed to be a member of the Royal Society; she and Mary Somerville, however, were the first women members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

  7. Pingback: Lazy Blogging | Feminism and Science

  8. Pingback: Finding the lost women of science « through the looking glass

  9. Pingback: Finding the lost women of science « through the looking glass

  10. I feel so proud that women, although many times not encouraged, made so many scientific endeavors at such early times and without recognition – good for them!

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