3 Trailblazing Women in STEM History

Image of the Faraday Museum display


Monday 8th March is International Women’s Day where across the world women are encouraged to celebrate female achievements, raise awareness against gender bias and take action for equality.

This year the theme for International Women’s Day is Choose to Challenge so we thought there was no better time to place a spotlight on some of the trailblazing female scientists associated with the Royal Institution as we recognise their contributions to the science community and the Ri as a whole.

Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen Lonsdale (nee Yardley) was the first female Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1945 and the first female president of the British Association in 1968.She studied mathematics and physics at Bedford College London where she reportedly secured top place in London University’s BSc examination.

One of her examiners, William Henry Bragg , was so impressed that he offered her a research post in his team working on the crystal structure of organic compounds initially at University College London, and then at the Royal Institution. 

Lonsdale's major work was to help determine where possibilities of molecular symmetry might occur and demonstrating for the first time that the benzene ring was hexagonal and two-dimensional and calculating its precise dimensions.

In 1927 Kathleen Lonsdale she married Thomas Lonsdale and moved to Leeds for three years before returning to the Royal Institution where she effectively led research there following Bragg’s death in 1942.

In 1946 she was appointed Reader in Crystallography at University College and Professor of Chemistry there in 1949.

Find out more about Kathleen Lonsdale on the Royal Institution website.

Harriet Moore

Harriet Moore was an artist, who originally painted some of the now most widely reproduced images of the Royal Institution in the 1850s.

Moore came from a wealthy Scottish military and medical family. Her father was a surgeon and a field geologist serving as secretary to the Geological Society for ten years.

Her father formed the first family connection with the Royal Institution when he was elected a member in 1836 and later served as a Visitor and a Manager.

The Moore family was well acquainted with a wide range of artists including Henry Fuseli, Joseph Turner, David Wilkie, Francis Chantrey and Thomas Lawrence. These relationships may have inspired Moore’s artistic interest.

Moore was well acquainted with Michael Faraday and his wife Sarah. In fact Faraday was one of her sponsors when she joined the Royal Institution in 1852, her other nominators included her brother and Angela Coutts, the second wealthiest woman in England.

As a wealthy woman with considerable artistic talent, there was no need for Moore to paint commercially.

She could choose to paint what she pleased and with her close connections to Faraday and the Royal Institution she depicted, during the 1850s, the interiors of the building in eight watercolours, now in the archive collection.

Six are of the laboratory spaces on the lower ground floor; two of which show Faraday at work and another depicts his assistant Charles Anderson.

Following Faraday’s death in 1867, Moore continued her connection with the Royal Institution, corresponding with John Tyndall.

The closeness of Moore to the leading lights of the Institution may explain the existence of perhaps the most iconic images ever painted of a laboratory.

Find out more about Harriet Moore head to the Royal Institution Website.

Mary Sommerville 

Mary Somerville, immortalised by a bust in the Library, was one of the first women to be elected as a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835.

Her scientific investigations began before that in the summer of 1825 when she began to carry out experiments on magnetism. In 1826 Sommerville presented her paper entitled "The Magnetic Properties of the Violet Rays of the Solar Spectrum" to the Royal Society.

The paper attracted favourable notice and was one of the first papers by a woman to be read at the Royal Society.

In 1827 Sommerville secretly undertook a project to write a popularized rendition of Laplace's Mecanique Céleste and Newton's Principia. She was persuaded to undertake the project by Lord Brougham, part of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, as he felt she had a gift for communicating complex concepts clearly.

She wrote the manuscript in secret knowing that if she couldn’t achieve the project it could be destroyed. The ‘Mechanism of the Heavens’ was in fact very successful and became possibly the most famous of her mathematical writings.

Sommerville's second book, The Connection of the Physical Sciences, was published in 1834 and was one of the biggest selling science books in the 19th century. It was an account of physical phenomena and the connections in the physical sciences. It was at this point in 1835 that Mary Sommerville was made the first female fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society alongside Caroline Herschel.

Sommerville published a further two books, Physical Geography in 1848 and Molecular and Microscopic Science in 1869, each well received and widely used in schools and universities.

These are only three women who contributed hugely to the scientific community in a time when women were not seen as generally capable of scientific study. Find out more about women who have contributed to science and society over the years on the Royal Institution website.