Episode 17: The Wives, Sisters, and Helpers of Science
Hosts: Anna Reser, Leila McNeill, and Rebecca Ortenberg
Guest: Michelle DiMeo
Producer: Leila McNeill
Music: Careful! by Zombie Dandies
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In this episode, the hosts discuss the key role that the wives, sisters, and helpers of “great” men of science have played in shaping the history of science, and why it is so difficult to pinpoint their influence in the historical record. Michelle DiMeo joins in to talk about Lady Ranelagh, the sister and life-long influence of Robert Boyle.
#ThanksForTyping Spotlights Unnamed Women in Literary Acknowledgments by Cecilia Mazanec
[LISTEN] Love, Hate, and Sex From the History of Science by Distillations Podcast
Portrait of M. and Mme Lavoisier, by Jacques-Louis David, 1788
The Forgotten Life of Einstein’s First Wife by Pauline Gagnon
Myths, Monsters, and Constellations by Leila McNeill
The Women Who Made Male Astronomer’s Ambitions Possible by Erin Blakemore
Transcription by Rev.com
Rebecca: Welcome to episode 17 of the Lady Science podcast. This podcast is a monthly deep dive centered on women and gender in the history and popular culture of science. With you every month are the editors of Lady Science magazine.
Anna: I'm Anna Reser, co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a writer, editor, and PhD student studying 20th century American culture and the history of the American space program in the 1960s.
Leila: And I'm Leila McNeill, the other founder and editor-in-chief of Lady Science. I'm a historian of science and freelance writer with words in various places on the internet, and I am currently a regular writer on women in the history of science at Smithsonianmag.com.
Rebecca: And I'm Rebecca Ortenberg, Lady Science's managing editor. When I'm not working with the Lady Science team, I can be found writing about museums in public history around the internet and managing social media for the Science History Institute in Philadelphia.
Leila: Yeah, so before we get into the episode, I wanted to give everyone a heads up for the next special series that we're going to be running on the website next month. To coincide with the Supreme Court oral arguments we'll be exploring the relationship between the courts, gender, and healthcare, with a new piece each week in the month of April. So be sure that you check it out on the website or follow us on social media so that you don't miss it. And I also want to thank everyone who's been tweeting about this show. We don't pay to advertise the show, so we greatly appreciate you all spreading the word. And don't forget to leave us your rating or review on Apple podcasts and wherever you get your podcasts so that more people can find us. So thanks.
Rebecca: Okay, let's get started on today! I don't know [laughter]. That was weird. Anyway, you guys remember a while ago when there was the #thanksfortyping that was going around Twitter? So that would have been like early 2017. I had to go look it up because I couldn't even remember when it was. But there was definitely a good chunk of time when everyone on academic and feminist Twitter was talking about it. Because it has been a couple of years--a couple of long years-- here is the recap. Bruce Holsinger, who was a professor of English at the University of Virginia, started started talking on Twitter about something that at first sounds pretty boring, acknowledgement pages of scholarly books. But the interesting thing was that he began to point out that buried among references to publishers, and mentors, and advisors there would be a line that would go something like, "I want to thank my wife for typing up my manuscript," and he would see this over and over again.
Rebecca: And according to the acknowledgments the wives they weren't just typing, they were also editing the manuscript or proofreading it, acting as research assistants. And there were even times when it would say something like, "Thank you for taking care of my children and doing the housework," so like acknowledging that as well in this really weird way.
Leila: Thank you for making sure I don't live in a hovel while I'm doing the work of genius.
Anna: Right, right. So one of these acknowledgments said, "My wife transcribed the first draft of the manuscript working from the black letter type, 16th century spelling and wondrous punctuation of the original publications." So today you can decipher historical punctuation and type and handwriting, paleography, that's because that's a specialized field that people study that people do. It's not just a thing that like wives do, yikes. So in the most of the examples in the #thanksfortyping, I think, were authors and literary scholars from the 20th century, but this is a phenomenon very familiar to those of us who study women in the history of science, yes?
Anna: So today...Well, not [just] today...[laughter]
Leila: This has been-- thanks for listening to the show everybody, that'll do it for us.
Anna: That'll do it for the podcast forever, it's over, we had a good run, oh God. So a lot of what we do at Lady Science involves sort of peeling back the layers of who's actually doing scientific work, who's getting credit, why some people are doing work that's remembered by the sort of popular imagination, and others get pushed to the edges. So, in fact, in the dedication of our very first Lady Science anthology from approximately 1,000 years ago we tried to highlight this and so the dedication was, "We dedicate this volume to all the astronettes, computers, helpers, typing girls, lady doctors, and housewives," and these are people that are sort of in the background, or in the acknowledgments, sort of the footnotes or whatever.
Leila: And you see this type of discussion with people like Cecilia Payne, and Annie Jump Cannon, and other women computers who worked at the Harvard College Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th century. And you also see this in more recent stories highlighted by the famous book and movie Hidden Figures, with the stories of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson. But if you go back even further you can start to see it when you look at the life and work of wives, and sisters, and mothers, and daughters of several prominent scientists. Some of these women had formal academic training of their own, and some of them didn't. All of them, like the women in the #thanksfortyping, did their work in concert with a male relative who got most or, in a lot of cases, all of the credit for their joint accomplishments. So today we're going to learn about some of these women and why they matter so much.
Rebecca: Yeah, so the first story that we are going to talk about, I think it's the earliest example that we have here. It's one of my favorite women from the history of science, and that is Marie Ann Lavoisier, who was also often is called Madame Lavoisier. And I have to give credit to Alexis Pedrick, who is my friend and colleague at the Science History Institute, for teaching me everything I know about Madame Lavoisier, and why she was pretty badass. The Institute recently did a podcast that goes even more deeply into her story, so we'll leave a link to that in the show notes and you can learn even more about the way that she both worked with her first husband and hated her second husband, but that's another story. So Marie Ann was born in 1758 to a family of aristocrats in France. When she was 13 years old she married her father's protégé, Antoine Lavoisier-
Leila: Which is gross.
Rebecca: All kinds of gross, but they actually-- I guess they had a positive relationship. I don't know, it's weird, but the 18th century was weird. Today Antoine Lavoisier is sometimes called "the father of modern chemistry." I feel like he's one of like 10 people who are called "the father of modern chemistry," but whatever. Among other things, he discovered the role oxygen played in combustion and some basic principles for a number of different elements. And the interesting thing, though, is that Marie Anne was really his collaborator every step of the way. She worked in his lab and wrote down and interpreted the results of a lot of his experiments. And she did a lot of translating of his work. She was also a really wonderful artist, and she made drawings of his lab as well. Antoine Lavoisier is amazingly well documented, even for someone of his status. But a lot of the reason that he's so well documented is because Marie Ann documented all of his work. And one thing that is nice about the Lavoisier story is that it is relatively common among people who know about Antoine Lavoisier to talk about his wife as well, because her fingerprints are all over so much of his stuff.
Rebecca: Another great way that you see that is, if you have ever seen a painting of the two of them, it is a painting of him sitting at a desk and looking over his shoulder at her. And she's standing behind him, I think, she has an amazing wig, and she is like front and center in this painting. And this is really a painting of her that he happens to be in. And based on his expression and posture you feel like he even knows that, which is what's so great about it. So this is an example where she's at least getting a little bit more of the air around his work, I think, than some of the woman we're going to talk about. All of that said no one has ever written a biography of her, which is insane and someone should get on that.
Anna: That I actually didn't know. I thought for sure that ... I think it's a good first story to talk about in the context of "thank you for typing" because it's amazing that even well into the 20th century, men who are doing big thinking just cannot be bothered to write things down. And that writing down the results of your experiments--or, in the period I study, I don't know, learning how to use a typewriter and writing memos for your job--it's just like completely beneath men. It's just way too menial for their genius brains.
Leila: Yeah, one of the things that in the other women that we're gonna talk about too is when you first study history of science or you study these like standout male figures. Like Einstein, for example, we're going to talk about his wife. And they seem to have like these bursts of time in their life where they're like just creating work constantly and I always just thought that there was some element of genius because that's not how normal people are able to produce work. Same thing with someone like Darwin, and the reason, now that I have learned more about this stuff and the role of the women their lives and what they did, is that they did everything else that allowed them to do that, to devote days and days and months and years to just working, because they had all of these people around them that were doing everything else. No, of course, I'm never going to reach that level of output but because I don't have someone literally feeding me while I'm typing. That was almost like a turning point for me when I was studying history of science, and that was really the first thing that busted genius myths for me.
Anna: The other good genius buster was I believe it was Darwin who kept good records of like his actual work habits, but it just involves like getting up at like 11:30 in the morning and eating some toast and then thinking for a few hours, and never really taking direct care of his children. A lot of sleeping these geniuses did, which sounds nice you can imagine their wives getting up at like 4:30 in the morning. Okay, so yeah, the next story is it Mileva?
Rebecca: That sounds right to me.
Anna: I'm so bad about ... this is one of those things like I get slapped on the wrist for mispronouncing things that I've only ever read and never heard spoken out loud mostly people's names.
Leila: So let's talk about Einstein-
Anna: Speaking of geniuses I guess, Mileva Einstein was the wife of Albert Einstein with whom you may be familiar with, perhaps. And I'm not gonna talk any more about him. But Mileva was born in Serbia in 1875, she met Albert when she was admitted to the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich in 1876. And we know from their letters together that Albert wasn't a great student. He sort of rarely attended lectures and it was actually Mileva who helped him stay organized in his studies. And by the time they left the Institute they were on equal footing, sort of, grades-wise, and Mileva even received a higher mark in applied physics of five to his one, which is I think a considerable difference, of course. But of the pair, only Albert was granted a degree. And so after they continued working together and they even published a paper that was given only his name not hers. According to a 2015 biography of them written by Redmila? Oh no, oh God. Millin?
Leila: We'll put it in the show notes. Just say it's a biography and we'll put it in the show notes.
Anna: Oh god, I'm so sorry. They continued their work together and they even published a paper that was given only his name and not hers, of course. And according to a 2015 biography they came to this decision to only have his credit be on it because they believed that a paper that included a woman's name received less recognition. And they were probably right. So after they were married, in addition to working together, Mileva took on the roles of wife and mother. And in 1905, which is the year that Albert published his work on special relativity, it is sort of like very important year in his life and legacy, Mileva was the one who checked his work when he clocked out went to bed.
Leila: So again the lots of sleeping.
Anna: Lots of sleeping, yeah. We have this image of geniuses being up at all hours, but no. Historically, they tended to get their 8 or 14 hours, or whatever. So as Albert gained more fame, the marriage began to buckle under that stress, and it eventually ended in divorce. And so when agreeing to the divorce, Mileva said that if Albert ever received a Nobel Prize, she was to receive that money, and she did. But in 1925, Albert wrote in his will that the prize money was intended for his sons. What a prick. Mileva objected and said that she would then claim her contributions to his work--like she would go public. And in response Albert wrote her, and I think it's worth reading the passage in full to understand how Mileva and women to a larger extent were kept quite in these situations. So he wrote to her, "You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections. Have you ever considered, even just for a second, that nobody would ever pay attention to your saying if the man you talked about had not accomplished something important. When someone is completely insignificant, there is nothing else to say to this person but to remain modest and silent. This is what I advise you to do."
Anna: I got a little choked up reading that. So yeah, I don't have anything else to say about that. For a fuller account of this story and to read more on Mileva Albert's letters you can check out Pauline Gagnon's piece in Scientific American, and we'll link to in the show notes as well, but that's a doozy.
Leila: And the thing is, it's true. Like, what he said is cruel, but it's also true. And we know it's true because we're just now learning about her. History proved him to be right about people not listening to a woman or not believing that she would have something to do with what he did.
Rebecca: You can imagine, sort of, the good faith it took to publish that first paper with him. And also just, like, the rational thought processes of, okay, it's just worth it to get the work out there and we have a great relationship so this is never going to come back and like bite me in the butt. In part because, what other choice does she have to tell herself that? And then to have that fall apart and him to throw it in her face in this way is just. Yeah, the cruelty. And he knew that it was true, like that he was stating truth, but he wasn't gonna help her out of the situation. He was gonna make it harder because he could. It's just so devastating.
Leila: Well, and there's the first part the first sentence of that letter, "You made me laugh when you started threatening me with your recollections." I think saying "recollections" has a sort of patronizing, dismissive, diminishing-
Anna: It's like gas lighting.
Rebecca: It's "What you think you remember you need to keep quiet about."
Leila: Yeah, we know the extent to which that type of rhetoric and thinking goes like, "Well who's gonna believe you, who's gonna believe you that I hit you, who's gonna believe you that I did these things to you?" And that's what keeps women quiet about a whole range of violences and oppressions that are done to them.
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, that's such a rough one, yeah.
Leila: This one's also pretty rough. So unlike Lavoisier and Einstein, Caroline Herschel did receive quite a bit of notoriety in her day for her discovery of several nebulae and comets, such as the Herschel-Rigollet comet. She was the first woman to be awarded a gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society at 1828. And she was also named an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy in 1935. And on her 96th birthday--she lived a long time--in 1846 the King of Prussia gave her the gold medal for science. And she was without a doubt an accomplished astronomer. But her name is also forever tied to that of her brother William Herschel. Throughout her life and career she supported William, and she took care of him, and even feeding him, and reading to him while he worked. She cleaned, and polished, and mounted his telescopes for which he was and still is so famous for. And she also recorded and organized Williams astronomical findings. But for Herschel, I think that this goes to show how pervasive the role of women is, that even this role of sister and helper and assistant seem to eclipse her own accomplishments.
Leila: And even her own identity as an astronomer in her own right. And when she was 96, the same year that the King of Prussia honored her, she wrote, "I am nothing, I have done nothing at all. All I am, all I know, I owe to my brother. I am the tool, which he has shaped to his use." It's so sad.
Rebecca: It is, it is. She accomplished so much but, like, the conception of her doing that in her own right, there were so few models for that thing that you could imagine that the only model she saw for herself was to be someone who helped her brother.
Leila: And it's like, these societal gender roles-- sister, wife, whatever. I think for women, these roles are also very caught up in identity, and self identity, and self realization in a way that is not the same for men.
Rebecca: Yeah, yeah, because men get to be fathers, but it obviously does not dictate the scope of their lives the way it does for women.
Anna: Caroline's story has always been, I think, especially upsetting to think about just because, like we said, this totalizing role of a sister or a wife or something, it shapes your perception of everything that you do. So it was not possible for Caroline to see herself that way. Like you said there, was no model for that. There's no model for a woman astronomer for her to form her identity around. The only model she had was sister, assistant. And another thing that I think is interesting about Caroline and some of these other women is, you talked about how she organized his data. And that labor like typing, doing calculations, has been categorized as feminized menial labor. But I'm sorry, You can't do astronomy without, like, a well-organized dataset. Otherwise you're just looking at a bunch of nonsense that you wrote down, that's an essential part of the step. And we were so quick to say that that William Herschel is this genius astronomer, but he couldn't even organize his own data.
Anna: And if she hadn't done it for him how would he be able to draw the conclusions that he did.
Leila: He could not feed himself.
Anna: Yeah, who organized her data that she used to verify her discoveries, she did it herself.
Rebecca: Yeah, there's this idea that men have great ideas and women do the boring stuff that makes like the great ideas concrete and usable in some fashion.
Anna: Yeah, and it's tied in again to these caring roles, these gendered rules of like sister, or wife, or helper, all these sort of more menial or material details of both of science and of daily life. Preparing food for yourself and putting it in your face is something that men don't have to be bothered with because they can generally expect to have a wife, or a sister, or a mother to take care of them and to take care of those sort of material needs.
Rebecca: So for another example of this sort of thing. The three women we talked about so far were related to some of the most famous men in the history of science. And they're relatively well known themselves, but we do want to wrap up by mentioning a lesser-known woman that maybe, in some ways, the things that she was doing exemplify that sort of #thanksfortyping thing of just doing all of this background work that ensures that science and academic work happens. So Elizabeth Campbell was the wife of William Campbel,l who in the early 20th century was in charge of the Lick Observatory outside of San Jose California. So at the time Northern California was pretty isolated like this California is still the Old West basically, and so it's pretty isolated. But there's a community of astronomers and scientists who live out there and their families. And so both Elizabeth and the wives of the other astronomers played a pretty significant role in building the social and cultural life for the observatory and the surrounding community.
Rebecca: They were the ones making stuff happen around them, both in terms of socializing, but also in terms of, like, making sure stuff got clean, and there was food, and they had communication with the larger cities nearby. And a lot of the women were also pretty well educated themselves, and so they were doing a lot of the computer work, too, the article I read about this said. But along with being a significant observatory, the Lick sponsored eclipse expeditions around the world. And this is where Elizabeth Campbell really seems to come into her own and, like, the work that she did, because she was in charge of managing the expeditions. And literally they went to Australia, and they went to South America, and they went all over Europe, and she was the one that made sure that all the travel was planned for a large group of people, that the expedition had all the supplies they needed, that the camps were set up and taken down.
Rebecca: She hired workers and volunteers from the local population wherever they went and was sort of a scientific diplomat, and this was even if she didn't speak whatever the local language was. So she was this like amazing project manager, it seems like, from these descriptions, which all went unspoken by the scientists going on these expeditions. And you can read more about her work and life in gender culture and astrophysical fieldwork, Elizabeth Campbell and the Lick Observatory by Alex Soojung Kim-Pang.
Anna: Yeah, and so according to Kim-Pang, Campbell didn't think of herself as a scientist and she actually had a degree in English, but you can't say that she wasn't central to making science happen. So that same article talks a little bit about lives of astronomers attached to less isolated observatories who weren't so intensely involved in the day-to-day scientific work. But I think we would all agree that even they had a pretty important role to play in making science happen, in creating and sustaining these scientific communities that historians of science love to go on and on about how important these scientific communities are. It's interesting that's, I think, a distinct turn in the historiography of the history of science, where we sort of move from talking about individual scientists working in isolation to talking about scientific networks and communities. And still we generally don't talk about the women who were involved in these communities because they were just wives or whatever.
Leila: I might totally be wrong with this, but it seems like where the work to expand those communities to women has been happening is with trade books and popular history of science books. With The Astronauts Wives Club, and The Girls of Atomic City, really expanding those communities to include not just the people that were doing the "hard science," but the people that were sustaining the communities for the science to take place, and that was mostly women. And I think this hits on something that we've talked about with the other women, is this idea of care being, of course, a gendered action and a gendered trait, but how much care has to go into making science happen. Because it's coded feminine it's seen as in opposition to science. Maybe not in opposition to but standing outside of it.
Rebecca: Separate from it, definitely.
Leila: Separate from it, yeah. And so, when we can expand what a scientific community is... Just, when we expand the definition of what science is, then we do start to see that there's more and more different types of people participating.
Leila: Yeah, science can't happen if there is in someone taking care of the kids and science can't happen if someone isn't managing household incomes. If someone isn't throwing parties that are basically big networking events that allow scientists to raise money or to network and meet other collaborators, it was women planning those things. And this is of course true beyond science, women have always worked and women have always supported and contributed to professional work that men get credit for.
Anna: Yes, and sometimes women took part in activities that we sort of clearly think of as work. It was common for women relatives especially wives to be shopkeepers, or accountants, business managers for tradesmen in the early modern world in the West. Their role gets obscured because the man owned the business, or was part of a guild, or was the one with the political power, but women are still doing the day-to-day labor. They're just not in the layer of society about which records get made, like who owns this business. One thing to point out about the history of science, for people Herschel or Robert Boyle, they didn't have a laboratory that they commuted to every day.
Leila: They didn't spend an hour in traffic.
Anna: Yeah, they did stuff in their own homes. Obviously, Robert Boyle has however many estates and houses or whatever, but one thing that we'll talk about in our interview later is that Robert Boyle's sister ordered all his lab equipment for him, and set him up with a lab in his house so that he could do his whatever. So just not only does the stuff have to happen even if you are someone who gets in your car and drives to your lab every day while your wife watches your kids. In the early modern world of gentlemanly science--people, it's happening in the home, so there's no separation there at all. And I think makes it even clearer and easier to see that the separation of this labor is gendered, it's not a spatial separation. Procuring things and organizing things is what women, do and thinking the thoughts is what men do.
Leila: And I think that all of this points to how it becomes so difficult to write women's history, because times when they just haven't been credited at all, or we have to look in the acknowledgments page, or the footnotes, or all of these other unexpected places to find them because they're not splashed in a byline and they don't have the cover piece of a book or something that, they're elsewhere. And sometimes they're given coded names, which Robert Boyle did to his sister, we're gonna talk about that too. But I think this is why doing women's history is so difficult it's so much harder to piece together a timeline, a life for people who were a footnote in someone else's life.
Rebecca: It makes me think... This is almost a cliche, but I feel getting back to the non-cliche of it is important. There's the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich quote that is often misused that "Well-behaved women seldom make history," and that is often used as a way of propping up women who were not well behaved, who were unusual, who went out and did the thing anyway. But the idea of that was that, it's really hard to find every day "well-behaved women" in the historical record because they are the footnote in someone else's story. Because the kinds of sources that the historical profession says are the best sources are things like government records, and legal documents, and things that really men are going to show up in the most often.
Leila: And so doing this type of work of combing through correspondence, and combing through acknowledgments pages, and footnotes, and all that type of stuff is one part of recovering women's lives. Another part is trying to get everyone to forget the history that was written before. You're not only fighting the actual people of this time who worked to hide these women, you're also contending with a long historiography that has buried them even further. You're fighting historians and you're fighting the time period at the same time. And so it's there's so much that goes into this work and you're fighting on multiple fronts to try to get them some visibility.
Anna: Yeah and Leila and I were talking earlier about, we were reading stuff to prep for our interview, about the 17th century. And we went through the same graduate program. And we both agree that I know a ton about 17th century science because it's the Scientific Revolution, and that's one of the central periods that they teach in history or science in graduate school, and so I know a ton about that. I'm a 20th century historian and sometimes I feel I understand more about the 17th century than I do about the 20th because we just spent so much time on it. And yet, we didn't talk about any of these women. We had a separate course on women. And that's another part of the problem, I think, as well, is that you're not being instructed in how to ask the right questions and how to look for women where they are. And instead you're just sort of partitioning off women's contributions to science as its own special field of study, instead of seeing them where they are in the history that just contributes to, I think, a larger inability to see women in that history going forward.
Anna: And I've written about that for the blog, too, about being in a conference, and someone giving a paper about a male scientist's books. And all of the books were co-authored by his wife, and he never mentioned her name even once. And that's an extreme example, where she had her name on the cover and she was a co-author, and he's still trying to tell me that she was probably just an editor or something. And so it just contributes, I think, to this... If that's how you learned the history of science, going forward as a scholar or even just as a person who's interested, that's how you're going to approach new sources and new records, with this big chunk missing, and 50% of the population that you're just you're not looking for. And just, I think maybe one thing to just highlight again just because I really can't stop thinking about it. We are fighting against, yes, this huge centuries long project of creating history and the history of science, and it's so much more work to add women back into this.
Anna: But it's not just a matter of recovering things that are there that people just haven't looked at. I think it's just worth underlining the fact that Einstein threatened his wife, so that she would not make her contribution public. So it's not just a matter of, oh things got forgotten or they got lost. They're being actively suppressed. And so if you want to idolize Einstein, you do that all you want, but just remember what he did to her. Oh my god, I am never not gonna be just enraged about that. And it's sad, it's really sad.
Leila: I am about to introduce our guest for the episode, but we recorded this a different time so it's just gonna be me and our excellent guest Michelle DiMeo. Michelle is a historian whose research focuses on the intellectual and cultural history of early modern science and medicine with particular interests in medical recipes and women practitioners. And she is currently in the middle of writing an intellectual biography of Catherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, the older sister of the 17th century natural philosopher Robert Boyle. Welcome Michelle.
M. DiMeo: Thank you, I'm happy to be here.
Leila: So this is a question we to ask most of our interviewees is how you got started with this, so how did you get started with studying Lady Ranelagh and who was she and why she's so interesting to you?
M. DiMeo: Sure, so I'll tell you a little bit about finding her in grad school. I did my PhD at the University of Warwick, and I was interested in early modern women's recipes, and what kinds of food and medicine women were doing in the household. And a lot of them start to look the same after you go through them, you recognize patterns, and similar ingredients, and ways of talking about bodies and health. But there was one recipe book that was really different. It had a lot of chemical and alchemical ciphers throughout it. There was weird shorthand, there were references to metals and to alchemy and there were a lot of men included throughout this, and a reference to it being more valuable than gold, which is not something... Again it's kind of an alchemical reference. And I didn't know who this was, and it was so different from the other women's recipe books that I was looking at. So I brought it to my PhD supervisor at the time and said, "This is such a strange book do you know anything about this woman?" And she was like, "Oh my god that's Boyle's sister that's your dissertation," and so that's how it started with finding this recipe book.
M. DiMeo: But then I start trying to figure out who she was, and that meant that I had to go to archives in four different countries and pull together over 100 letters written to her and by her and just try to piece her life together.
Leila: Yeah, I can't imagine how many people working on dissertations and research projects wishes that's how they found their topic I mean, that's almost the historians dream, right, stumbling upon something that. And I know the work of piecing together a life that is a lot of work but, man, that's got to be exciting and rewarding for sure.
M. DiMeo: It absolutely was, it was definitely a lot of starts and false starts though. So that recipe book, while it was the start of it, the reality is I can't actually use a ton of it. Once I got a little bit deeper into it, turns out it's not written in her handwriting, there's parts that were copied from other people's recipe books. And so the further I got into that recipe book the more I realized it was a launchpad for me to go other places, but the book itself it did not turn out to be the whole dissertation, it's most of the letters.
Leila: Yeah, so in the article that you've written, and this is such a great title, "Such a Sister Became Such a Brother: Lady Ranelagh's Influence on Robert Boyle," and you note in there that despite the fact that she was pretty prolific in her lifetime, aside from this one recipe book, it's been difficult for historians to locate and connect her various writings. So what makes doing research about her or the other women of the same time period different from researching men, so a man like Robert Boyle?
M. DiMeo: Absolutely, yeah, so women at the time were prolific and known during their lifetime, but their stories are often forgotten after they die, and that's partly because most women were not publishing at the time. So to back up, a lot of women used manuscripts, handwritten documents, and so you might write letters to someone, you might even copy those letters and use a network. There was a network called the Hartleb Circle, and this was--Samuel Hartleb was based in London over 1640s and 1650s, and he used manuscript very extensively. And people would send manuscripts to Hartleb, Hartleb might copy your manuscript and send it to somebody else, but it was a scribal network. There were women that were popular in that, Lady Ranelagh was one of the most prolific scribal writers in that network, actually that we know of today. Not just as a woman, but she was in the top 10 connections from over 700 people that were writing in that network. So we know that she was well known, she was older than Robert Boyle. So when he moves to London, she has the connections and she's the one that is setting him up with some of the people who would later become part of his intellectual network.
M. DiMeo: Everyone knew her and I think that quote, "Such a sister became such a brother," that's a contemporary quote from their funeral sermon. They had a joint funeral sermon, they died one week apart from each other. And Bishop Gilbert Burnett says that about him, that he wouldn't basically be what he was today without his sister helping him do that. One thing I'll say is, so partly the scribal network is one of the reasons that women are not around today. They weren't publishing, so you can't go to the library and check the book out the way you can with Robert Boyle, who wrote very prolifically and did publish a lot of stuff. But also when Boyle died, he made provisions for his archive. So he has a will and testament, he has literary executors to his will, and he was very conscious about the fact that he was leaving a legacy behind. So he has color-coded ribbons tied up, and he has these inventories written up saying, "You can find these documents with the blue ribbon in this room, and you can find this chest over here for this," and he's very conscious about the legacy he's leaving.
M. DiMeo: A woman wouldn't have done that. It would have damaged their modesty, essentially. And so some women were published posthumously by other people who inherited their works, but generally speaking, women would not have thought to do that or have done that.
Leila: And there was something, I believe, in the article where he did not reference her by name in one of his works.
M. DiMeo: In none of his works, yeah absolutely, and so that is absolutely right. She didn't publish, and then those who mentioned her in their publications, Robert Boyle did not use her name, so he uses the pseudonym Sophronia, which is about wisdom and knowledge, which is a very nice pseudonym, but it's not obviously it's not her name. And scholars today have had to work backwards to try to find references to her in his works and others. There's other references, too, like "a woman we all know." So we know today that's her, but it's really thanks to the work of hundreds of years of scholars piecing together references, and being able to talk about who she is today.
Leila: And it seems she had a pretty big influence on Robert Boyle, and not just on his political and moral outlook, but also just on him as a person. You mentioned that she set up his laboratory for him to make sure that he had everything he needed when he moved into her house. So can you talk a little bit about their relationship?
M. DiMeo: Sure, so she's, I said, 12 years older than him. And their mother dies when he's only 3 years old, so she's 15. And she actually had a failed marriage. Her first marriage was set up when she was only nine years old, when she left the house to be contracted to marry to a family that then falls apart. But she has by this time developed some head of the household responsibilities, and she's been already nurtured on how to be a matriarch. So when she moves back to the house after this failed marriage, and she's 15 years old, and her mother dies, and she has this younger siblings, the youngest at the time being Robert Boyle, and there's another little girl that ends up dying, so Boyle does become the youngest. He looks up to his mother, he doesn't have a mother figure at this time, and scholars definitely agree that this is the start of her being a surrogate mother for him. But it carries on throughout his life. When he does go, he learns a little bit of French and Latin and does a tour of the continent, and when he comes back to London he's looking for a network and a family. And he looks up his older sister, Lady Ranelagh, and she's in London at this time.
M. DiMeo: And this is the start--he's actually thinking about joining the army, and she tells him, don't do that, this is a waste of your skills, you should be of the mind, and she talks him out of it. And that's something that later when he's writing a biography of himself, he says is one of the formative moments in his life, that she was able to introduce him to some of the political and intellectual figures who would later become very important to him. And then he does, he moves, she helps him set up his first laboratory, which is Stall Bridge at one of the family estates, but over this time he's not in London. She's the one who's in London. He's actually quite far removed in southwest England at the family estate, so she's connecting him all through this time. He moves to Oxford, she helps him. She goes over to the apothecary's house, and sleeps in all the rooms to make sure which one's the best for her younger brother, and make sure he has a laboratory there, so she really is there. And then when she eventually convinces him to move to London, he moves in with her and she again, like you mentioned, make sure he has a laboratory on that house as well.
M. DiMeo: And we're definitely sure that they must have continued to work together. They lived together for the last 23 years of their lives, but because they're not writing to each other anymore there's less evidence at this point.
Leila: Right, yeah, especially what she said at the beginning how a lot of you're piecing together of things for her has been letters. So let's talk a little bit about the work that they did together, what did some of their collaborations look and then we can maybe talk a little bit though what her work alone looked like.
M. DiMeo: So again, it's difficult to say exactly what all the collaborations looked like. We know that they had similar interests, in medicine specifically. And at this time there's a push to try to use medicine as one of the useful forms of natural philosophy. At the because some of the new experimental science is under attack by some people, and medicine is an easy way to say, "Look, this new experimental philosophy that's out there is actually helping people." So we know that she's reading some of his works on this, and she's editing some of his works, and helping him pushing them into the publication. We also know that they work together. There's a few recipes--there's one which is like Spirit of Hearts Horn, these are various chemical medicines that they were producing. And we know from his books that he says that he's made them, and then he'll make a reference to his sister also making them. So the extent of their collaboration is not totally clear, but we know that they're doing that together.
M. DiMeo: But perhaps one of the biggest forms of collaboration that survives is her treatment of the rickets. Boyle mentions several times that she has this recipe, which again is similar to this Unsvenaris one that he mentioned somewhere else. But he says multiple times that she's treated hundreds of children of the disease and fixed them, and the way that he writes about it, he says stuff prepared by me and given out by her, so she's probably the one that's distributing the medication. And we do know that there's different dosages based on how sick the patient is and the patient's weight, so dosing that medication and distributing it is also, she was the one that was actually giving patient care.
Leila: What was some other work that she was doing on her own?
M. DiMeo: There's some more extensive recipes in this book as well, in some of the other books. So we definitely know that whether she's doing it with him or on her own, she's definitely interested in medical recipes of various kinds. But also, I mentioned this Hartleb Circle group. So they're interested in trying to better the world, and it's through politics, through education, social reform more generally. And she's very politically active throughout her life, and she writes a few discourses. There's one discourse concerning the plague, where she's really upset that people who are dissenting against the mainstream religion at the time are being trapped, and because the plague is spreading, the plague is spreading and killing all of these people. And she's saying, they're dying just for following their conscience, this is ridiculous. And so she does a lot of political activity, as well, that Boyle's less interested in. Maybe he's not less interested, but he's much more careful than she is.
M. DiMeo: And there's another piece that comes out at the end of Boyle's life that, which is an attack on mainstream medicine that I'm pretty sure has Ranelagh's mark on it and he never publishes it. But for my book I've been tracing some of the language that's in there and tracing it back to Ranelagh, and I think that she's actually probably behind some of that as well.
Leila: So we talked about this a little bit, but I think this is something that is a larger problem with other women and in this episode we talked about Caroline Herschel, and Mileva Einstein, and how it's very difficult to tease apart the obscured influence of the wives, or sisters, or helpers, or whatever they're called for that and from the work of the famous men. And to actually quantify that influence in a way that we can say that this woman mattered, what has doing that work with Ranelagh and Robert Boyle been like for you?
M. DiMeo: I think it's been very powerful I would say that I'm getting some good reception of it too. I mean people have known forever pretty much that Ranelagh was a big influence on Boyle, but what's been so hard is, as you said, to quantify it and say, what did she actually do? You have all these vague references to people saying "such a sister became such a brother," but you're like, well how? But what did she actually do? So it's extremely time-consuming. And also, I think sometimes one of the challenges for me as a historian is that what I find doesn't look "feminist" today. It doesn't look like the thing that feminists want to rally around and say, "Oh this is great, she's really breaking down doors, and she's really doing this." The fact is she wasn't, that she found a way to live as a woman in the 17th century by being an intellectual woman without attracting criticism, and I think that was something she carefully navigated, and that's what makes it difficult for us to locate her influence today. But it's also what made her so successful at being a female intellectual in the 17th century.
Leila: Oftentimes I find the more feminist type of statements that I see in women's history is how they subverted norms within the roles that they had. That it wasn't always burning bras that type of things, sometimes it was operating and navigating the conventions of the time and subverting them in all of the little nuanced ways that they could find.
M. DiMeo: I completely agree. And I think that I'm really happy we're getting there. I just remember undergrad, so long ago, but the women that we talked about were often women that we could relate to, and even when I teach this stuff today, students love stories about Margaret Cavendish, or other early modern women who are all ... Which are great stories. But there are so many of these women who... You said they're not burning bras, they're not knocking the doors down, but they have found ways to manipulate these worlds that they live in. And I think the more we learn about that, the more we're gonna find women you're talking about in this show today, and I think that's an absolutely essential part of history.
Leila: Well that's all the questions that we have for you, thank you for being on the show.
M. DiMeo: Thank you so much to Lady Science, you guys are great.
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