Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1105:
MARY ROBERTS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1105.

Today, we face the anger of a woman who's been erased. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A while back, I did a program on Arabella Buckley, who wrote a perfectly lovely and important set of 19th-century books on science for young people. A few months later, I was called to lecture at a conference in Brighton, England -- Arabella Buckley's home town.

While I was there, I combed Brighton for traces of Buckley. I talked to librarians, booksellers, and city hall. No one had ever heard of her. It was as though she had never been. It turns out that's a familiar story. All kinds of women scientists made huge contributions in the 19th century and were then subtly erased.

Now Stephen Jay Gould offers an essay, "The Invisible Woman." First he recites names of solid scientists -- women who discovered fossils and did fine biological illustration. Then he opens a book by Mary Roberts, written in 1834: The Conchologist's Companion.

It's hard to find anything about Roberts beyond her birth and death dates and titles of the dozen books she wrote. So Gould looks at this book of snails and mollusks. Like most pre-Darwin scientists, she's a creationist. She superposes a literal reading of God's purpose on biology. And she speaks in the voice of female subservience. Listen as she talks about the social order:

It seems [God] designed to teach us by the admirable arrangement of his creatures, that the different gradations in society are designed by his providence and appointed for our good.

Something rings false here. It begins to sound like parody. Perhaps rebellion rides beneath Roberts's conventional surface. Sure enough, another passage takes on 19th-century male dominance with very little subtlety. Anger fairly seeps through this passage:

It seems as if maternal nature delighted to baffle the wisdom of her sons. ... even in the formation of a shell, ... your arrogant pretensions are completely humbled.

So Gould seeks out a later Roberts book, The Progress of Creation. He has to dig this one out of Harvard Library's remote storage area. Once more, Roberts fits the creation of species into a literal Biblical framework. Beyond that, much of her elementary biology is blatantly wrong -- like insisting that elephants are carnivores. But this time, in Gould's words, "Roberts wades in, dukes held high, swinging at all the greatest male scientists of Europe." She still speaks in the deferential voice of a subservient woman. But now Gould finds a rash edge of self- destructive anger. He wonders if she isn't seething inside.

Roberts's erasure may be no great scientific loss. I certainly cannot grieve it the way I grieved Arabella Buckley's erasure in Brighton. But as Roberts vanishes she leaves behind a glimpse of someone chafing at the constraints on her life. She didn't gird herself with the same iron discipline that most great 19th-century women scientists did. And that's why we suddenly perceive what we didn't see in Buckley's books. Here, laid bare, is the raw anatomy of the frustration -- that 19th-century women had to feel.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gould, S.J., The Invisible Woman. In Dinosaur in a Haystack. New York: Harmony Books, 1995, Chapter 15.

For more on Arabella Buckley, see Episode 943.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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