Jane Marcet: Biography, Books & Invention

Instructor: Ginna Wilkerson

Ginna earned M.Ed. degrees in Curriculum and Development and Mental Health Counseling, followed by a Ph.D. in English. She has over 30 years of teaching experience.

Jane Marcet (1769 - 1858) was a pioneering writer of popular introductory science books. Marcet was actually the first female to write authoritatively in the science area, writing 'Conversations on Chemistry' in 1806.

Jane Marcet's Background

Jane Marcet was educated at home with her siblings, following Swiss tradition. She studied Latin (essential for the sciences), chemistry, biology, and history. She also was exposed to standard subjects for female children such as literature, music, and art. Her training in drawing eventually contributed to the appeal of her science textbooks, allowing her to do her own illustrations.

Jane was married in 1799 to Alexander John Gaspard Marcet (1770-1822), originally from Switzerland. He had graduated from medical school at the University of Edinburgh in 1797. The young couple made their home in London, and had four children.

Early Career

After helping edit the proofs of one of her husband's books, Jane decided she would try one of her own. The first attempt, entitled Conversations, addressed in a general way the subjects of chemistry, botany, religion and economics.

Marcet never shied away from acknowledging that many people thought these serious topics inappropriate for female students. Even in her first text, she addressed this issue in the introduction.

Published in 1819 (though actually completed in 1805), Marcet's Conversations on Natural Philosophy covered the basics of scientific knowledge of the time: physics, mechanics, astronomy, the properties of fluids, air, and optics.

A Subject Not for Women?
Subject of Chemistry

The text book also introduced a common format for Jane Marcet's texts: a dialogue between two pupils, Caroline and Emily and their teacher, Mrs. Bryant. This format made the texts even more appealing for female science students.

Establishing Herself as a Science Writer

Marcet also wrote another text in 1805, which was published in that same year: Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex; this one was published anonymously. This text eventually became her most well-known and popular book.

Conversations built upon the work of Humphry Davy, Cornish chemist and inventor. This text emphasized the importance of replication of experimental results, as well as the inclusion of theoretical rigor. The text was illustrated by Marcet's own detailed and authentic drawings of chemical apparatus.

Unfortunately, though not surprising, Jane Marcet was not identified as the author until the twelfth edition appeared in 1832. The book had sixteen editions published in England, where it was an early inspiration for the young chemist and researcher Michael Faraday, who was most famous for his work with electromagnetism and electrochemistry. The text circulated widely in America, often in plagiarized editions.

Michael Faraday
Michael Faraday

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