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May 24 2022
This is the story of a pioneer; the First Lady of Chemistry, a feminist 200 years before the word was even coined.
Marie Meurdrac, possibly the most important female scientist you’ve never heard of, was born in 1610 to a wealthy family in the small town of Mandres-les-Roses, today a suburb of Paris.
We don’t know much about her life. We know she married a military man, the commander of guards for the Duke of Angoulême (illegitimate son of King Charles IX). We know she was a friend of the noblewoman Countess de Guiche. And we know that in 1656, at a time when educated women were openly ridiculed in French society, she dared to publish a science book: a handbook of practical chemistry that would help popularise the subject across Europe.
Chemistry, more than any other science, is historically a women’s science.
The first known chemists were women—their names inscribed on cuneiform tablets of ancient Mesopotamia around 4000 years ago. These ancient chemists were concocters and purveyors of perfume—a vital commodity in the age before assiduous personal hygiene. From ancient times and through the Middle Ages the secrets of medicines, cosmetics and perfumes were passed down through the generations from mother to daughter.
But as the Enlightenment sparked in the 16th Century, and the act of formally writing down and debating scientific knowledge took hold of mainstream aristocracy, the subject of chemistry, like all sciences, was commandeered by men. It became an intellectual pursuit, a subject too complex for women’s pretty little minds.
It is a wonder, then, what led Marie Meurdrac to devote herself to the study of chemistry.
All we know is that she devoured all the available books on the subject and, not content with book-learning, she established her own laboratory to test what she had read about. She probably even had her own high-temperature furnace—an unusual situation, as the ownership of furnaces was prohibited by the King, without special permission.
So as not to forget what she’d learned, Marie made notes on her experiments. After some years she realised her notes had grown to a considerable body of work, in many respects eclipsing the other chemistry handbooks of the time. The idea came to her to publish it, but she held back. In her own words:
I dwelt irresolute in this combat almost two years. I objected to myself that teaching was not the profession of a woman; that she ought to remain in silence, to listen and to learn, without bearing witness that she knows: that it is above her to give a work to the public, and that such a reputation is not by any means advantageous.
In 17th Century France, women were advised to conceal their studies, as ‘excessive knowledge’ should be avoided. As portrayed in Moliere’s comedy Les Femmes Fatales (The Learned Ladies), educated women were regarded as being pedantic, annoying and ridiculous. The debate—should women be educated?— known as the “woman question” (la querelle des femmes), had already raged for 150 years, and would continue for 200 more.
By Marie’s time, those calling for increased women’s education were making more noise. Some handbooks on scientific subjects especially aimed at women began to appear. However, their content was not intended as a practical guide, but merely as material to enhance the women’s abilities as salon conversationalists. Progress was slow, particularly in the field of chemistry. The secretary of the French Academy of Sciences remarked in the 1690s while reviewing a series of chemistry lectures: ‘even women, attracted by fashion, had the audacity to come to show themselves to such learned assemblies.’
Attracted by fashion, Marie Meurdrac was not.
She began to offer her medicines free of charge to the poor, and free instruction to whoever asked. After seeing how her knowledge could benefit people, Marie eventually decided that withholding her notebook from the world would be a sin. In 1656, probably with the aid of her friend and patron the Countess de Guiche, Marie Meurdrac published the handbook Useful and Easy Chemistry, for the Benefit of Ladies.
The work discussed instrumentation (vessels, lutes, furnaces, weights), how to make medicine from plants (especially by purifying through distillation), as well as animals, metallurgy and compound chemistry. The final part was directed to a female audience and covered methods of preserving and increasing beauty.
Unusual for the time, the book was written for the general reader, with an unpretentious style, and provided clear, practical instructions. It became popular throughout Europe for more than 50 years, going through four editions in France and three in Germany and it was also translated into Italian. Besides exposing chemistry learning to a wide audience, it played an important role in exposing the dangers of some treatments of the day. (For example, women used mercury sublimate as a beauty treatment to whiten the skin, a practice Marie decried, rightly, as damaging.) She also advocated for readers of her book to make cures freely available to the poor, as she had done.
One of the most remarkable things about Marie’s work was her declaration, radical at the time, of the intellectual equality of men and women.
The first and second editions of her handbook (but sadly omitted by the publisher from the third, after Marie’s death) were adorned with a preface describing her internal struggle about whether to publish. It finished with the salient and prophetic words:
I prided myself that I am not the first woman to have placed something under the press, that mind has no sex, and if the minds of women were cultivated like those of men, and if we employed as much time and money in their instruction, they could become their equal.
Following Marie Meurdrac, there would be prominent female chemists of the 18th Century, such as Jane Marcet and Marie Lavoissier, but these women were often known primarily as assistants to their husbands. It would not be until the turn of the 20th Century that a husband, Pierre, became assistant to his wife, Marie Skłodowska Curie. The redress of the imbalance of women in the sciences continues to this day.
Picture from The Othmer Library of Chemical History, The Chemical Heritage Foundation