Women pioneers and the Royal Society

Discover some of the trailblazing women of science in our collections

Discover the secret histories of some of the pioneer women who contributed to science. Be inspired by their inventiveness, tenacity and innovations through the Royal Society collections. 

Sculpture bust of Mary Somerville (1840) by Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey (1781-1841)The Royal Society


Science is a universal province, and women have always contributed to the advancement of science. Social constructs and the ways in which they took part in the making of science, however, have long kept them faceless and voiceless in the archive of science. Focusing on the Royal Society collections, this exhibition brings to the foreground several pioneers to celebrate women in science.

Journal Book of the Royal Society, volume 3. Journal Book of the Royal Society, volume 3. (1667-05) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

The aristocrat Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673), was the first woman to be allowed to attend a meeting of the Royal Society (along with her female attendants).

On 30 May 1667, Cavendish saw demonstrations 'of colours, loadstones, microscopes and of liquors' and experiments of the air pump by Robert Boyle (1627-1691).

The Family of William Cavendish, Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne (1656) by William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle-upon-Tyne|Peeter Clouwet|Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne|Abraham van DiepenbeeckThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

Margaret Cavendish had long moved in intellectual circles before becoming the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society.

Grounds of Natural Philosophy (1668) by Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), Duchess of NewcastleThe Royal Society

Cavendish’s several works of natural philosophy were informed by, and sometimes reacted against, readings of savants such as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) or most notably of Robert Hooke (1635-1703) and his Micrographia. The verdict of the President of the Royal Society, Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), was simple: ‘I do not like her at all’.

Montague Lady Mary Wortley ( +Edwaard Wortley Montagoe )LIFE Photo Collection

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) had seen smallpox inoculations performed in Constantinople. Montagu believed passionately in its protective effects and participated in the first campaign of inoculation in Britain, performed on her own daughter Mary.

Caroline van Brandenburg-Anspach (1683-1737). Echtgenote van George II, koning van Engeland (1720 - 1737) by Zincke, Christian FriedrichRijksmuseum

She quickly persuaded Queen Caroline, wife of George II, to follow suit – but not before testing on inmates of Newgate Prison.

Smallpox inoculations. (1721) by Charles Maitland (1668-1748)The Royal Society

The archive shows here the record of the inoculation of Lady Montagu's daughter (Mary), by Charles Maitland (1668–1748).

The Royal Society initiated the successful campaign of inoculation against small pox which Lady Mary Wortley Montagu had called for.

Observations of a parherlionThe Royal Society

Mock suns are a relatively common phenomena, but this 1733 paper is highly unusual in that its author was a woman.

Observations of a parherlion Observations of a parherlion (1734) by Martha GerrishThe Royal Society

Martha Gerrish (1689-1736) acknowledged that her paper would have a greater chance of acceptance if it were in a masculine hand.

Forwarded to the Royal Society from America, the information it contained was read, but not published.

Portrait of Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1912) by AnonymousThe Royal Society

The first woman to publish a formal article in the scientific periodical of the Royal Society was the astronomer Caroline Herschel (1750-1848).

Letter to Charles Blagden announcing the discovery of a comet Letter to Charles Blagden announcing the discovery of a comet (1786-08-01) by Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848)The Royal Society

Before her 'Account of a new comet' appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1787, several women like Martha Gerrish had corresponded with the editors and some of those letters had been published.

Nebulae sweep books (1783/1802) by Caroline Lucretia Herschel (1750-1848) and William Herschel (1738-1822)The Royal Society

Caroline Herschel charted hitherto unknown nebulae, eight different comets and mapped clusters of stars. A skillful and patient observer, she also had the analytical eye to identify astronomical structures.

Mary Somerville (1834) by Thomas PhillipsNational Galleries Scotland: Portrait

First known for her mathematical prowess, Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872) wrote on astronomy, geography, microscopy and other topics.

According to her contemporary the American astronomer Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), she was the most learned woman in Europe.

On the action of the rays of the spectrum, 1845 (1845) by Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872)The Royal Society

Published in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, this paper by Mary Somerville was communicated by Sir John Herschel (1792-1871).

It recounts her solar experiments in Rome on paper sensitised by a variety of plant extracts.

On the magnetizing power of the more refrangible solar rays (1826) by Mary Fairfax Somerville (1780-1872)The Royal Society

Somerville first published with the Royal Society some twenty years prior to this paper, in 1826, on the relationship between light and magnetism.

Mary Somerville also published popular science books to bring science to a wider audience.

Louisa Charlotte Tyndall (1877)The Royal Society

Louisa Tyndall née Hamilton (1845-1940) was the working partner of the physicist John Tyndall FRS (1820-1893) who set out the bases to understand global warming.

Apparatus for examining diathermy of liquids (1864) by John TyndallThe Royal Society

Although she is known to have aided her husband in the Royal Institution’s laboratory for 17 years, working on apparatus such as this one, she was not acknowledged in his printed work – a situation typical of the period.

These are some stories of early women who pioneered science often in the shadows. Discover more inspiring women in science from our collections.

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