Jane Marcet educates Michael Faraday

This post is in honor of Ada Lovelace Day, a celebration of the contributions of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math).

Even when women weren’t officially recognized as scientists or allowed to pursue a formal education or career in science, they still managed to make incredible contributions in a variety of ways.  Nowhere is this perhaps more evident than in the story of Jane Marcet (1769-1858), a pioneer in providing science education to women.  Starting in 1805, she wrote a series of science books tailored towards women, the most popular being the 1805 Conversations on Chemistry, which went through 16 editions in Britain alone.  The books became standard textbooks in a number of girls’ schools in the United States.

But women were not the only ones who benefited from Marcet’s writing.  The great Michael Faraday, who demonstrated the connections between electricity, magnetism and light, got his start in science from reading Marcet’s Chemistry!

Jane Marcet née Haldimand was born in London as one of twelve children of the merchant and banker Anthony Francis Haldimand.  She received a thorough education at home, learning Latin, biology, and chemistry alongside her brothers.  When her mother died, Jane took over running the household, which included serving as the hostess for social gatherings that included scientists.

Portrait of Jane Marcet, from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Library.

Portrait of Jane Marcet, from the Edgar Fahs Smith Collection, University of Pennsylvania Library.

In 1799, Jane Haldimand married Alexander Marcet, a Swiss-born physician.  He was apparently quite supportive of his wife’s interest in science: after he became a lecturer of chemistry at Guy’s Hospital in London, the couple performed home chemistry experiments and discussed the principles of science.  Deciding to further her education, Jane Marcet ended up attending a series of lectures on chemistry by the famed Humphry Davy.

It was during these lectures that Marcet apparently decided to write her own books.  Her motivation evidently stemmed from her realization that the standard scientific lecture was too specialized for the general public, especially for women who had received no other scientific training.  Inspired by the insightful casual conversations with her husband, Marcet decided to write her books in a conversational style.  She explains her reasoning quite clearly in the preface to Conversations on Chemistry:

In venturing to offer to the public, and more particularly to the female sex, an Introduction to Chemistry, the author, herself a woman, conceives that some explanation may be required; and she feels it the more necessary to apologise for the present undertaking, as her knowledge of the subject is but recent, and as she can have no real claims to the title of chemist.

On attending for the first time experimental lectures, the author found it almost impossible to derive any clear or satisfactory information from the rapid demonstrations which are usually, and perhaps necessarily, crowded into popular courses of this kind. But frequent opportunities having afterwards occurred of conversing with a friend on the subject of chemistry, and of repeating a variety of experiments, she became better acquainted with the principles of that science, and began to feel highly interested in its pursuit. It was then that she perceived, in attending the excellent lectures delivered at the Royal Institution, by the present Professor of Chemistry, the great advantage which her previous knowledge of the subject, slight as it was, gave her over others who had not enjoyed the same means of private instruction. Every fact or experiment attracted her attention, and served to explain some theory to which she was not a total stranger; and she had the gratification to find that the numerous and elegant illustrations, for which that school is so much distinguished, seldom failed to produce on her mind the effect for which they were intended.

Hence it was natural to infer, that familiar conversation was, in studies of this kind, a most useful auxiliary source of information; and more especially to the female sex, whose education is seldom calculated to prepare their minds for abstract ideas, or scientific language.

As, however, there are but few women who have access to this mode of instruction; and as the author was not acquainted with any book that could prove a substitute for it, she thought that it might be useful for beginners, as well as satisfactory to herself, to trace the steps by which she had acquired her little stock of chemical knowledge, and to record, in the form of dialogue, those ideas which she had first derived from conversation.

I find this to be an absolutely remarkable and insightful argument.  Ignoring the rather antiquated style, the sentiments might well be expressed by any modern science communicator whose goal is to reach as many non-expert readers as possible.

One snippet of the above text I find particularly insightful, as well as relevant to our next topic.  Marcet wrote,

Hence it was natural to infer, that familiar conversation was, in studies of this kind, a most useful auxiliary source of information; and more especially to the female sex, whose education is seldom calculated to prepare their minds for abstract ideas, or scientific language.

It is to be noted that she (understandably) does not claim that the female sex inherently requires a different mode of instruction, but only due to an education “seldom calculated to prepare their minds.”  She also correctly implies that such a text would be useful for anyone without a scientific education, not just women.

One such person was young Michael Faraday (1791-1867).  Born as the son of a blacksmith, he was of a class beneath those who were allowed in that era to be scientists.  He was raised with little formal education, and when he became an apprentice bookbinder at age 14, it seemed that he was destined for an unexceptional life.

An image of Faraday in his thirties, via Wikipedia.

An image of Faraday in his thirties, via Wikipedia.

Faraday was a voracious reader, however, and his job at Riebau’s bookshop gave him access to all the books he could wish for.  The first science book that captured his attention was a 1797 encyclopedia volume which contained an article on electricity.  Inspired, he spent some of his meager savings on his own electrical apparatus, and tried to reproduce some of the results discussed in the article.

His work was unfocused, however, and he still possessed little intuition of how science should be performed, tested, and verified.  In 1810, however, another book arrived at Riebau’s: it was, of course, Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry.  He devoured its contents, learned from it, and was inspired to pursue chemical studies.  In 1812, he was eager to learn as much science as possible, and he managed to gain entrance to Humphry Davy’s lectures: the same lectures that had inspired Marcet to write her book!

An illustration of a pyrometer from Conversations on Chemistry, drawn by Jane Marcet.

An illustration of a pyrometer from Conversations on Chemistry, drawn by Jane Marcet.

Here a remarkable bit of fate would set Faraday upon his scientific course.  When Davy injured his eyes in an explosion, he needed a writing assistant to help while his vision recovered.  One of Davy’s friends, a Mr. Dance, was a friend of Riebau’s, and Riebau had proudly shown Dance the laboratory notes of Faraday.  Dance, in turn, recommended Faraday for the job with Davy.

The rest, as they say, is history.  Though Faraday would face many obstacles before he achieved scientific success and international fame, the job with Davy allowed him to overcome the biggest barrier: the opposition to someone of his social status taking on a scientific role.  The job with Davy, in turn, likely would not have happened without the written tutelage of Jane Marcet.

Faraday in his lab, circa 1850, by Harriet Jane Moore.  Via Wikipedia.

Faraday in his lab, circa 1850, by Harriet Jane Moore. Via Wikipedia.

How influential was Marcet’s book on Faraday’s scientific career?  When Jane Marcet passed away in 1858, one of Faraday’s friends, M. De la Rive, was asked to write a short biography of her.  De la Rive had heard about Faraday’s connection to Marcet, and wrote to him to confirm the story.  Faraday replied:

Your subject interested me deeply every way, for Mrs. Marcet was a good friend to me, as she must have been to many of the human race. I entered the shop of a bookseller and bookbinder at the age of 13, in the year 1804, remained there eight years, and during the chief part of the time bound books. Now it was in those books, in the hours after work, that I found the beginning of my philosophy. There were two that especially helped me, the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” from which I gained my first notions of electricity, and Mrs. Marcet’s “Conversations on Chemistry ,” which gave me my foundation in that science.

Do not suppose that I was a very deep thinker, or was marked as a precocious person. I was a very lively, imaginative person, and could believe in the “Arabian Nights” as easily as in the “Encyclopædia;” but facts were important to me, and saved me. I could trust a fact, and always cross-examined an assertion. So when I questioned Mrs. Marcet’s book by such little experiments as I could find means to perform, and found it true to the facts as I could understand them, I felt that I had got hold of an anchor in chemical knowledge, and clung fast to it. Thence my deep veneration for Mrs. Marcet: first, as one who had conferred great personal good and pleasure on me, and then as one able to convey the truth and principle of those boundless fields of knowledge which concern natural things, to the young, untaught, and inquiring mind.

You may imagine my delight when I came to know Mrs. Marcet personally; how often I cast my thoughts backwards, delighting to connect the past and the present; how often, when sending a paper to her as a thank-offering, I thought of my first instructress, and such like thoughts will remain with me.

The two kept up correspondence throughout her life, and she would contact him for information on the most recent developments in order to update her Conversations!  For example, when Faraday’s discovery of the link between light and magnetism was announced in the press, Mrs. Marcet wrote to ask Faraday for more information (letter dated November 24, 1845):

Dear Mr. Faraday, — I have this morning read in the “Athenaeum,” some account of a discovery you announce to the public respecting the identity of the imponderable agents, heat, light and electricity; and as I am at this moment correcting the sheets of my “Conversations on Chemistry” for a new edition, might I take the liberty of begging you would inform me where I could obtain a correct account of this discovery.  It is, I fear, of too abstruse a nature to be adapted to my young pupils; yet I cannot make up my mind to publish a new edition without making mention of it; I have, therefore, kept back the proof sheets of the ‘Conversation on Electricity,’ which I was this morning revising, until I receive your answer, in hopes of being able to introduce it in that sheet.

The two only met once in person, and under somewhat inauspicious circumstances.  We have mentioned that Faraday got his first scientific break in helping out Humphry Davy in 1812.  In 1813, impressed with Faraday’s work, Davy secured a permanent position for him at the Royal Institution as the Chemical Assistant.  Not long after this, Davy was scheduled to go on a multi-year tour of continental Europe.  With war brewing, however, Davy’s valet refused to take the potentially risky journey.  Davy immediately turned around and offered to bring Faraday along in the dual role as valet and chemical assistant.

The opportunity to meet some of Europe’s most distinguished scientists and see the countryside was too good to pass up.  Unfortunately, though Davy considered Faraday more a scientist than a servant, the same was not true of Davy’s wife, who went out of her way to put Faraday in his presumed place.

At this point, we borrow Alan Hirshfeld’s description, from his excellent book The Electric Life of Michael Faraday:

During the summer of 1814, Faraday accompanied Davy on scientific outings to Naples and Mount Vesuvius before the entire party embarked for an extended stay at a villa on the shores of Lake Geneva.  Here Davy hobnobbed with a number of scientists, including chemist Gaspard de la Rive and his physicist son, Auguste, with whom Faraday maintained a decades-long correspondence.  Davy’s acolyte evidently made a positive impression upon the Genevan scientists, one of whom commented, “We admired Davy, we loved Faraday.”  It was also in Geneva that Lady Davy made what might have been her most egregious affront against Faraday.  Imagine Faraday’s excitement when told that he and the Davys were invited to a dinner party hosted by Jane Marcet, author of the book that had awakened his interest in chemistry.  Imagine, next, his horror when ordered by Lady Davy — in front of the assembled guests — to take his meal in the kitchen with the servants.  He shuffled off while the others sat down at the table.  At dinner’s end, as the ladies were adjourning to the parlor, Jane Marcet’s husband, Alexander, announced in a stage whisper, “And now, my dear Sirs, let us go and join Mr. Faraday in the kitchen.”

Faraday would overcome such indignities and, as we have seen, he and Mrs. Marcet would essentially be colleagues, though she never did research herself.  Her books were of undeniable impact, however, and she continued to revise them throughout her life.  The last new edition of Conversations on Chemistry came out in 1853, when Marcet was 84 years old!

Jane Marcet shows that women played important roles in science even when they were generally kept out of research and discovery.  I believe it is fair to say that, without Jane Marcet, Michael Faraday would not have achieved the success he did, and the world would have been much poorer for it.


A bonus woman in an unusual science-related role!  The illustration of Faraday’s lab presented earlier was done by Harriet Jane Moore (1801-1884), a watercolor artist who depicted Faraday’s home and places of work in the 1850s.  She has given us a unique look into the life of one of science’s most brilliant innovators.

Faraday's study at the Royal Institution, by Harriet Jane Moore, via Wikipedia.

Faraday’s study at the Royal Institution, by Harriet Jane Moore, via Wikipedia.

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

4 Responses to Jane Marcet educates Michael Faraday

  1. I think that Michael Faraday, was, and always will be, the greatest scientist who ever lived ————
    he knocks the rest of them into the proverbial ‘Cocked Hat’ (MY opinion). To think that he was
    inspired by Jane, and her book(s), is almost unbelievable! A good piece of detective work, on
    your part! Keep up the good work, you are doing.

  2. Andy Extance says:

    Great post, couple of wonky dates though, presumably Marcet got married in 1799 not 1899 and her book arrived in 1810 not 1910?

  3. ApostoliaG says:

    Michael Faraday became more Famus than his teacher, Davy..He was more clever than him..Excuse me too, but Jane Apreece(Davy’s wife) was a bad and awfull woman!!!!!!Davy was a good man, but he married this snob woman,so,he had not a happy wedding whith her!!!!!!

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