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
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
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
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
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."
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.