Women in Science: archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

Nightingale's Rose Diagram, with explanatory text
Florence Nightingale, Diagram of the Causes of Mortality in the Army of the East', Add MS 45816, f1

Archives and manuscripts authored by women who have contributed to various fields of science in Great Britain, dating from 1600 to the present day.

About the collection

The Western Manuscript collections document all aspects of the history of western science, as described in the Modern Scientific Manuscripts guide. The contribution of British women to science, however, was made in spite of restrictions placed on them by a male dominated scientific community. Until the birth of women's colleges in the mid-19th century women were excluded from receiving formal scientific training, and were unable to take university degrees. They were discouraged from certain scientific professions and were unable to join some established scientific societies until well into the 20th century. The Royal Society, for instance, did not allow women to become fellows until 1945. For these reasons, manuscripts and archives authored by women on scientific subjects feature less prominently in the collections than those authored by men, and can be more difficult to locate.

This guide identifies archives and manuscripts composed by women which have contributed to scientific fields - including biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and medicine - from both inside and outside formal scientific structures. 

The 17th century 

In the 17th century many women were involved in practices of lay medicine, and some and authored medical recipe manuscripts. The Sloane Manuscripts hold many early medicinal and alchemical manuscripts by named female authors, as well as many more anonymous ones. The Sloane Manuscripts also contain a transcript of some of the experimental philosophy of Margaret Cavendish, the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society.

The 18th century

Collections from the 18th century include the verse and correspondence of early vaccination pioneer Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and the letters of Caroline Herschel, astronomer and winner of a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The 19th century

Collections from the 19th century include such figures as Jane Marcet, writer of popular science books; Mary Somerville, mathematician and astronomer; and Ada Lovelace, pioneer in early computing. Correspondence from these three women are present in the Charles Babbage papers. Other notable collections include the extensive archive of health reformer and statistician Florence Nightingale; artworks of biologist and artist Marianne North; and correspondence of explorer and science writer Mary Kingsley.

The 20th century

The Stopes papers contain correspondence from many women who were advancing in different fields, including surgeon Dr Ethel Vaughan-Sawyer, and engineer and mathematican Hertha Ayrton. We also hold the archives of Eva Germaine Rimington Taylor, geographer and historian of science. Other collections relating to contemporary science include the archives of developmental biologist Professor Marilyn Monk, and the archive of Dr Anne McLaren, a biologist whose work contributed to the development of IVF. Her papers include correspondence with scientists across the world, including with immunologist Indira Nath and cancer researcher Mina Bissell. 

Highlights include:

What is available online?

Selected material from the Nightingale personal papers is available through Adam Matthew Digital's Medical Services and Warfare module.

Images of significant manuscripts authored by women relating to science are available to view via British Library Treasures.

The Voices of Science page gives additional insights into women working in science today, and includes recordings made for the National Life Stories and Royal Society project Inspiring Scientists: Diversity in British Science.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Archives and manuscripts can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. In some cases you may need to provide a letter of introduction or further information in order to access manuscripts and archives. Use the online catalogue to find out whether access conditions apply. It is advisable to contact the Manuscripts Reference Team before travelling to the Library. Up to 5 working days notice is required to process applications to consult restricted collection items.

What is available in other organisations?