While some girls in turn-of-the century British independent schools were learning to be good wives and mothers, others were eagerly conducting experiments in state-of-the art chemistry labs.
This notion challenges the historical image of chemistry as a boys’ subject in British schools. It has also inspired Dr. Geoff Rayner-Canham to travel to Britain and dig around in library archives and the dusty attics of independent girls’ schools. So far, Dr. Rayner-Canham and his co-researcher, Ms. Marelene Rayner-Canham, have visited 42 schools and found archival material on an additional 10 schools.
The seed of Dr. Rayner-Canham’s research was planted when he read a book about the discovery of the chemical elements. The book included a portrait of a young Canadian woman named Harriet Brooks. Unable to find any information about her, he decided to research her life. Dr. Rayner-Canham’s work has resulted in a book, participation in a TV documentary, and Harriet Brooks’ induction into the Canadian Science and Technology Hall of Fame.
Surprisingly, the exploration also uncovered about 800 British women chemists working in the period between 1880 and 1930. The explanation for why there were so many early British women chemists seemed to originate with chemistry education at British independent girls’ schools.
Through their research, the Rayner-Canhams have traced the first teaching of chemistry in British girls’ schools back to 1820. This contradicts modern writings, which say chemistry wasn’t taught in these institutions until the 1950s. Some schools the Rayner-Canhams visited believed they were the only ones who had taught chemistry, while others thought they never had, when in fact they did. He partially attributes these discrepancies to the fact that the all-female teachers and headmistresses were single and did not have children, so when they died the history was not passed on to future generations. Other factors were the decline of the suffragette movement and the “Back to Home and Duty” effort after the World Wars. Some of the evidence of chemistry education came from the stories included in magazines published by the schools. “We have been astounded by the enthusiasm of the girls for chemistry,” said Dr. Rayner-Canham. “They even wrote short stories and poems about chemistry!”
Dr.Rayner-Canham said his work is an example of how ground-breaking research can be accomplished on a small amount of funding. The research has resulted in a series of publications and conference presentations and a book is in the works.