Jane Marcet

Jane Marcet was a science writer, but that alone doesn’t qualify her as a famous scientist.

Jane Marcet (pronounced marset) was born in London on the very first day of the year 1769.

She was the daughter of the wealthy Swiss banker Anthony Francis Haldiman and his wife Jane.

She was home-schooled. In 1799, she married Alexander Marcet, a Swiss medical doctor.

The couple lived in London.

Alexander, who was interested in chemistry, became a Fellow of the Royal Society and had a home-laboratory built.

Alexander practiced as a physician in London and became a lecturer on chemistry at Guy’s Hospital in London.

The Marcets counted many scientists among their friends, including Mary Somerville, a mathematician and astronomer.

Their social circle also included other women writers and scholars.

In 1817 Jane’s father died, leaving her a substantial legacy, and her husband gave up medical practice to devote himself full-time to chemistry.

Marcet began writing what became best-selling books on science after attending a course of public lectures given by the chemist Humphry Davy.

She enjoyed them, she said, but found them confusing until a kind “friend”—almost certainly her husband—explained the concepts to her in a series of “familiar conversations.”

Conversations framed in question-and-answer format were considered to be especially appropriate for teaching science to women. (Men, who learned their science at a university, were taught in lecture form.)

That was the inspiration for Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry, published in 1806, followed by Conversations on Political Economy in 1816.

She went on to publish Conversations on Political Economy in 1819 and Conversations on Vegetable Physiology in 1829.

All of the books feature discussions between a teacher, Mrs. B., and her two pupils, Emily and Caroline.

Emily, the well-behaved older sister, is about 13 years old and ready, according to her teacher, “to acquire a general knowledge of the laws by which the natural world is governed.”

Caroline, a few years younger, is less anxious to please and often asks harder questions.

Marcet moved from London to Geneva in 1820, after inheriting a substantial legacy from her father that allowed her husband to relinquish his medical practice.

Two years later, she found herself widowed when he died suddenly on a visit to England.

She divided her later years between Switzerland and London. Subsequent works included a primer on political economy for working people and a number of stories and pedagogical books for young children.

Toward the end of her life, she finally allowed her name to appear on the title pages of new editions of her books, claiming the credit to which she was entitled for a remarkable career in scientific education that particularly benefited women.

Many writers have followed her example, writing books that made difficult subjects easy to understand.

In turn, that helped more people become better educated.

Her most famous reader was the chemist and physicist Michael Faraday, who read the pages of her book while working as a bookbinder’s apprentice.

(In those days most books were sold as paperbacks and bindings were added at the purchaser’s discretion).

Faraday was inspired by Marcet’s work to go into science instead.

But thousands of other people must have read them, too, because her books were best-sellers.

Conversations on Chemistry alone went through 16 British editions and at least 16 American ones.

It was also translated into French and German. Her works became standard texts at girls’ schools throughout the United States, and individual copies still bear the names of their owners.