This post was written by Prabha Shah, Research Services Librarian at the Dana Research Centre and Library, Science Museum. It is part of a series of posts on the theme of Women’s History in the lead up to History Day 2018.

Dana Research Centre and Library, Science Museum. ©Timothy Soar, by permission of Coffey Architects

Science, in the sense of knowledge which describes, defines and attempts to explain the universe and all it contains, is commonly agreed to have developed with the rise of Greek civilisation. The Ancient Greeks were the first to engage in speculative thinking to formulate scientific theories. There are records of women being active in science from the time of the Pythagoreans in the sixth century B.C.

From this beginning until well into the twentieth century, women faced great obstacles and barriers to their participation in science. Generally, these were the same restraints which limited their participation in any arena outside the home: social and religious attitudes and conventions regarding the role of women; a belief that they were intellectually inferior to men; lack of independent income; and, most importantly, lack of educational opportunities.

Throughout these centuries the women who did participate in scientific activity tended to have a number of characteristics in common: they were from the upper classes; they were wealthy; they were supported in their interests and activities by their husbands or other male relatives, sometimes working with the men if they were scientists, in a subordinate role; and during the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries they were part of a social circle through which they formed friendships with male scientists willing to help and advise them.

Historians are revealing more about the contributions of women in the past and you could be one of them. The Science Museum Library and Archive should be one of the first places you think of when researching the history and biography of science, technology and medicine. Our world-class Library and Archive collections chart the world-wide development of science, engineering and medicine from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century. Original printed works include books, journals, British patents, trade literature, directories and maps in English and other European languages. The archives hold original records of some of the most famous and influential individuals and companies in these fields including important female scientists, engineers and inventors such as Ada Lovelace, Hertha Ayrton and Grace Hopper.

Our Dana Research Centre and Library in London consists of a carefully selected collection of biographies and histories of science, technology and medicine. Our main collections are stored at the Science Museum’s National Collections Centre at Wroughton, near Swindon. We offer a free delivery service of selected items from Wroughton to the Dana library for consultation there. Just check our catalogues!

We are gradually finding out more about our collections and identifying works by women scientists, engineers, doctors and nurses. Here are some examples:

Ayrton, Hertha. Manuscripts, typescripts and printed materials related to the British physicist and electrical engineer, Hertha Ayrton. Archives reference MS 2168. Ayrton made important contributions to the study of electric arcs and the physics of waves in water.

Bryan, Margaret. Lectures on natural philosophy: the result of many years’ practical experience of the facts elucidated. London, 1806.  This is one of two textbooks Bryan wrote. She ran a boarding school for girls in Blackheath, one of only two girls’ schools to follow the ideas of Erasmus Darwin and to include mathematics and science in the curriculum.

Curie, Marie.  Recherches sur les substances radioactives: thèse présentée à la Faculté des Sciences de Paris pour obtenir le grade de docteur ès sciences physiques. Paris, 1903. Marie Curie’s doctoral thesis details her discovery of radioactive elements. It was also the prelude to her and Pierre Curie’s joint Nobel Prize for Physics in 1903.

Hopper, Grace, 1906-1992. ‘Pioneers of computing’ interviews on audio cassette. Archives reference MS129. Hopper was a computer scientist, an important early developer of computer programming and one of the first programmers of the Harvard Mark 1 computer. She is recorded here in an interview made in the 1970s.

Joliot-Curie, Frédéric and Irène. Manuscript description of three items of apparatus used by Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie in 1934 in experiments to discover artificial radioactivity. Archives reference MS1522. This shows a shaped glass tube, a valve amplifier, and an electro-chemical counter, all of which are in the Museum’s collections.

Lonsdale, Kathleen. Letter about the lighting of the theatre at the Royal Institution in the early days. Archives reference MS1705/1. This letter accompanied a draft typescript lecture on the history of the Royal Institution, certainly proof-read by Lonsdale, and possibly written by her.

Marcet, Jane. Conversations on chemistry: in which the elements of that science are familiarly explained and illustrated by experiments. 10th ed. London, 1825. All editions before the 13th of 1837 were published anonymously. The young Michael Faraday was much influenced by an early edition and praised the book throughout his life.

Somerville, Mary. On the connexion of the physical sciences. 8th ed. London, 1849. This covers astronomy and physics; it is well researched and written clearly for a general audience without sacrificing accuracy.

Wilsdon, Charlotte. A photographic portrait and several documents. Archives references MS/0341, MS/1018, MS/1019, MS/1486. Wilsdon was a nurse during the Crimean War and worked with Florence Nightingale, who described her as ‘a kind, active, useful nurse and a strictly sober woman’.

Our collection of patents dates from 1617 until 1992. The Victorian period saw an increase in patents registered to women inventors such as Sarah Guppy who patented a method to make the piling safe for suspension bridges; other women patented a method for caulking (weatherproofing) ships and an ingenious combined coffee maker/egg boiler/ toast warmer.

We are always happy to discuss research ideas that help us better understand our collections and share them with our audiences.

The Science Museum Group’s  Research and Public History Department supports grant applications led by the Science Museum and partner universities and a growing programme of conferences, workshops and other events. It also runs the Science Museum Group’s collaborative doctoral programme and is the home of the Science Museum Group Journal. For more information please visit: