The New Girl Loves Chemistry

The Story of a Forgotten Era

in Girlhood Studies
Katherine DarveshMount Saint Vincent University

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Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham. 2017. A Chemical Passion: The Forgotten Story of Chemistry at British Independent Girls’ Schools, 1820s-1930s. London: UCL Institute of Education Press.

Some variation of the statement that we should educate girls in science, technology, engineering, and math to encourage them to develop an interest in STEM careers can be found in many articles, books, and conference presentations. We think of this as a modern idea, but, quite simply, that is not true. There was a time when (from the 1820s to the 1930s) and a place (Britain) where teaching science to girls was encouraged and supported. In their book, A Chemical Passion: The Forgotten Story of Chemistry at British Independent Girls’ Schools, 1820s-1930s, Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham describe this interesting era at British independent girls’ schools. These authors have written extensively about many British women chemists who were active in the early twentieth century. The idea for this book was born when they asked why there were so many women chemists during this specific period. Who encouraged these women to take up chemistry? How did their schooling contribute to their career choice? The authors’ curiosity led them to examine independent (called public) girls’ schools in England, Scotland, and Wales. They pored over school archives and school magazines in order to uncover the lost stories.

The authors, good writers, have collected massive amounts of information from a variety of sources and they have distilled from it all a very readable account of this most fascinating era. They provide ample evidence that not only did the girls in these schools enjoy chemistry, they developed a true passion for the subject. The students formed clubs, delighted in field trips, wrote poems and short stories about their experiences in the lab, and, in some cases, drew charming sketches of laboratory equipment with beakers, test tubes, and clamps that appear to come to life.

The book is written more or less chronologically; it begins by describing the revolution in girls’ education. A key contributor to this revolution was the Taunton Commission Report of 1868, and the resulting Endowed Schools Act of 1869 whereby, all of a sudden, monies previously earmarked solely for boys’ schools were now allocated partly to girls’ schools. To redirect some of this endowment money represented a major achievement by key figures such as the young assistant commissioner, James Bryce, who wanted girls to learn more than what were thought of as the typically decorative accomplishments of the time, even though sometimes that was all that parents wanted for their girls. The Devonshire Report required that these endowed schools incorporate at least one physical science in their curriculum.

In Chapter 3 is a very important description of two role-model girls’ schools—North London Collegiate School (NLCS) and Cheltenham Ladies’ College (CLC), and their two venerable heads, Frances Buss and Dorothea Beale, respectively. Buss became headmistress of NLCS in 1850 at the age of 23, and Beale became second principal of CLC in 1858 at the age of 27. NLCS was a fairly egalitarian day-school for daughters of the middle class, whereas CLC was more exclusive and provided the model for many British girls’ boarding schools. Miss Buss and Miss Beale, as they were known, were determined to include science in the curriculum, including a laboratory experience. This determination sometimes required a subversive attitude. Chemistry was slipped in as “physical geography and science” (42) to make it palatable to conservative parents. Subversion was again apparent, for example, when the Charity Commissioners struck out the plans for a new laboratory at the City of Cardiff High School for Girls and the school Governors relabelled the area a “Sewing Room” (170) in order to get approval, in the first instance for the space, and, eventually, for the lab, which they did once the Charity Commissioners came around to the view that knowledge of chemistry would be helpful in increasing students’ understanding of cookery and hygiene.

Current chemistry teachers will probably be shocked when they read about the experiments undertaken by these budding scientists. Studying the effect of heating mercury in air or burning sulphur with liquid oxygen is not something we would do today in a modern high school laboratory and the field trip to the sulphuric acid factory as described here would not be part of any current lesson plan. Although I would not for a moment advocate that we go back to the safety standards of that time, it is undeniable that students found some of the field trips, demonstrations, and experiments “thrilling” and unforgettable. In the chapter called Chemistry and School Science Clubs, the authors note that “to that generation of girls, industrial chemistry was pure excitement” (132).

The authors point out that “the admired attributes of yesteryear of obedience and docility were no more” as girls experienced the transformation of that era. This revolution in teaching took place in a society where “the new girl” (13) broke free from the obedience and passivity of the past; she was courageous, self-reliant, and eager to work. And this new girl could be just as successful in her chemistry studies as the boys could, as was proven by the standard examination results of the time.

This book is full of imagery such as photographs of the classrooms and labs, drawings from school magazines, photographs of chemistry teachers, and a very elegant prospectus for a Quaker girls’ boarding school. I particularly like the photographs of the labs. Those portrayed range from the rather terrifying makeshift attic labs of earlier days of the era to large high- ceilinged spaces built to the specifications of the time, with ventilation, ample lighting, gleaming benches, and huge open windows with sunlight streaming in on rows of girls in their lab smocks working on their experiments and presided over by an attentive teacher. These labs may not match our current codes, but some of them were in fact modern for their time and I found them quite beautiful. When these purpose-built labs finally arrived, students wrote about them with enthusiasm and great pride. The authors quote from Barbara Gollin and Lois Buckley’s report in the Belvedere School Liverpool Chronicle (March 1924).

We have had to wait patiently for a long time for the new lab., but now that it has materialized it has surpassed our wildest expectations. When the Modern Studies people beheld its shining glories, then were they truly grieved that they had forsaken the enlightened cause of Science for the sombre path of Modern Studies.


Rayner-Canham and Rayner-Canham are particularly interested in the career paths of the women chemistry teachers of these schools and devote space to these women and to their trajectories both in the book and in the appendices. The life of a teacher is described as a monastic existence. The woman chemistry teacher of that era was single, entirely devoted to her work, and had few opportunities for social contact during the day with anyone but her students and her colleagues. It was fortunate that the Association of Women Science Teachers (AWST) played a social role as well as an academic one.

There are several online appendices with more detail on the lives of some of the women chemistry teachers, as well as syllabi that give an overview of the curriculum. I found the curriculum very interesting; current instructors will no doubt find themselves making comparisons with their own curricula and will be amused by the debate on the “heuristic” (62) method often practiced at British independent girls’ schools of the era. These days we would call this method discovery-based learning or guided inquiry, and the current literature on chemistry education has many examples of this approach. British chemist Henry Edward Armstrong was a strong advocate of the method (in fact, he coined the term heuristic), and advanced the method as an antidote to rote memorization. Other British science educators of the day, including Sir William Ramsay, preferred the lecture method. While the debate continues to this day, it was clear at the time that guided inquiry required instructors skilled in the art of intervening when necessary to achieve the desired learning outcomes.

The final chapter explains how this enlightened era came to an end. The changes in curriculum were part of a broader societal shift. The Hadow Report of 1923 described a change in focus from giving equal opportunities to both sexes to that of educating girls to support their particular talents, acknowledging girls’ supposed limited mental capacity and lack of creativity. Biology was deemed more suitable for girls since it was declared to be a subject requiring diligence and neatness. The reasons given in the 1920s and 1930s for why girls are unsuited to the study of chemistry were justified with “known medical evidence” (xxiv) and were accepted as such, after a period of decades of evidence to the contrary. It must also be pointed out that men were returning from the First World War, and career women were seen to be taking away the jobs of these returning war veterans. Sadly, the inter-war era was no longer the age of the new girl of my title, and soon even the educators themselves forgot how chemistry used to be taught at their own schools.

We can all feel good about our current efforts to teach girls chemistry and to encourage them to consider careers in chemistry and other STEM subjects. But we can no longer claim to be the first to do so as this tribute to the new girls of a forgotten era and their dedicated teachers attests. This important story of the rise and fall of a revolution in how girls were taught should be of interest to educators, scientists, historians, and anybody who feels committed to encouraging girls to consider STEM careers, as well as to scholars of girlhood studies.

Contributor Notes

Katherine Darvesh is a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Physics at Mount Saint Vincent University, received the 2016 College Chemistry Canada (C3) Award in Chemical Education. Email:

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