Published online 24 December 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.689

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300-year-old engravings shed light on women in science

Copperplates unearthed in Oxford show the illustrative skills of naturalist Martin Lister's teenage daughters.

Click here for the slideshowBodleian Library/ University of Oxford. Lister Copperplates 162.

When the English naturalist and physician Martin Lister wrote home from France to his wife Hannah in 1681, he explained that he was enclosing a box of oil colours for his oldest two daughters, 11-year-old Susanna and 9-year-old Anna Lister, to paint with. He also asked her to lock away the precious pencils he was sending, "for they know not yet the use of them".

But within a few years, Lister was relying on the teenage Susanna and Anna to illustrate his landmark compendium of all known shells, the Historiae Conchyliorum, which was assembled between 1685 and 1692, and which was later cited by Charles Darwin. Lister was vice-president of the Royal Society, the United Kingdom's academy of sciences, and his daughters were also pressed into service to illustrate a number of letters published in the society's journal, Philosophical Transactions. Historians now believe the pair were the first women to use microscopes to help produce some of their scientific drawings.

Anna and Susanna's place in the history of science is explored in a biography of Martin Lister in preparation by historian Anna Marie Roos of the University of Oxford's Cultures of Knowledge project. In a recent web post, Roos describes how she stumbled across copperplates engraved by Susanna and Anna that were stored at the university's Bodleian Library. These plates were used to print the pages of the Historiae Conchyliorum on a home press. The slideshow shows some of these plates together with other examples of the girls' work. 

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  • #60753

    I had a lady friend once who was, in her spare time, working towards two degrees. One in physics and one in law. This was while she was earning her living with her MBA at a financial institution. While she truly loved the physics, she determined her odds of getting a worth while, rewarding job doing astronomy (her area of interest) as being somewhat less than her odds of making it big as a professional athlete. The law study was already paying off for her at work, so it was bye bye physics degree.

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