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This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Royal Institution's online course, Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp . Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Humphry Davy became famous by lecturing here at the Royal Institution of Great Britain from 1801 until 1812. He gave lectures on chemistry and geology. But to whom was he lecturing? In fact, it was upper class women who dominated Davy’s audience. So what impact did Davy’s audience have on women’s involvement in science in the early 19th century? Evidence that Davy’s audience was mostly female is found in the administrative archives of the Royal Institution. For example, here, in the minutes of the managers’ meetings, we can see that women and young persons were the largest subscriber group in the lecture season that ran from the winter of 1803 until the spring of 1804.

Skip to 0 minutes and 52 seconds They contributed 242 subscriptions, which was over half of the total 423 subscriptions for that season. I have identified 428 women who subscribed to the Royal Institution lectures. In most instances, the only information I have about these women is a name, title, and address. Some of these women have left a deeper trace in the historical record, particularly if they published work. For example, perhaps the most famous woman to have attended Davy’s lectures was Jane Marcet, the author of the bestselling chemistry textbook ‘Conversations on Chemistry’. A story less well-known is that of Elizabeth Anne, Lady Hippisley, wife of Sir John Coxe Hippisley, one of the Royal Institution’s managers.

Skip to 1 minute and 44 seconds Lady Hippisley conducted chemical experiments and had her own chemical laboratory on her country estate in Somerset. She corresponded with Davy and other chemists about her experiments. Davy gave her a method of analysing fossil shells. Davy acknowledged his mostly female audience in his lecture notes. Here is a published copy of the lecture that Davy gave at the Royal Institution on the 3rd

Skip to 2 minutes and 10 seconds March 1810: “Our doors are to be opened to all who wish to profit by knowledge. And I may venture to hope that even the female parts of our audiences will not diminish and that they will honour the plan with an attention which is independent of fashion or the taste of the moment.” Davy set a limit to female involvement in science, adding, “it is not our intention to invite them to assist in the laboratories.” Yet, Davy had assisted Lady Hippisley in her laboratory studies. Why didn’t Davy practice what he preached? Having a fashionable female audience was problematic for Davy’s reputation. “Fashionable” was the word most often used to describe Davy’s audience.

Skip to 2 minutes and 56 seconds The Royal Institution of Great Britain was, and still is, located in the heart of London’s fashionable world on Albemarle Street in Mayfair. This was problematic, as fashion was often constructed as in opposition to the projects of chemistry, which were supposed to aim at utility. One contemporary, Francis Horner, said Davy’s was an audience “assembled by the influence of fashion merely, and fashion and chemistry form a very incongruous union”. The story is further complicated by the fact that the mostly female audience that Davy had acquired at the Royal Institution was not the primary audience that the managers had intended to attract.

Skip to 3 minutes and 39 seconds This is the first Prospectus of the Royal Institution, circulated in February 1800 and used to advertise the Institution to potential subscribers. The Prospectus targeted an audience of manufacturers and stated, “an institution of this nature is peculiarly calculated to produce the unity of pursuit between manufacturers and men of science.” The Royal Institution did not become a place where artisans could be educated to apply science to their manufactures. But the Royal Institution did have an impact on women’s involvement in science. In England, it started a trend for scientific lectures that catered to upper and middle class women at a time when universities were closed to them.

Skip to 4 minutes and 26 seconds However, lecturers like Davy played down women’s involvement in the laboratory, creating a distinction between themselves and their fashionable audiences.

Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution

Watch Hattie Lloyd present some of her doctoral research in this video and consider the following questions:

  • Are you surprised that Davy’s Royal Institution audience was largely female?

  • What kinds of problems might be encountered when attempting to find out who was present at Davy’s lectures?

  • Why is the word ‘fashionable’ problematic with regard to Davy’s audiences?

  • How does the idea of ‘fashion’ oppose that of ‘utility’?

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University