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Conversations in Chemistry in Partnership with the Devon and Exeter Institution

British Science Week (11 – 20 March 2023) is a ten-day celebration of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This year’s theme of ‘Connections’ explores the interconnectedness of different areas of science as well as the human connections between individuals and organisations that inspire the sharing of new ideas and perspectives. We are celebrating this year’s theme of ‘togetherness’ in partnership with our neighbour on the Green, the Devon and Exeter Institution, Exeter’s original venue for enlightenment scientific experiment and debate. Together, we will be highlighting treasures from Exeter’s shared heritage in the history of science.  

Our starting-point is an early 19th century chemistry textbook: Conversations on Chemistry by Jane Marcet (1769-1858), published anonymously in 1805 with illustrations by the author. Both the Cathedral Library and the Devon and Exeter Institution Library have copies of the second edition published in 1806 and, judging from their condition, the books were popular on both sides of the Green. Our copy was previously owned by Samuel Barnes (1784-1858), a surgeon at the Exeter Eye Infirmary and subsequently at the Devon and Exeter Hospital. Samuel Barnes had connections to both the Cathedral and to the Devon and Exeter Institution: he served as the (first) Honourable Secretary of the Institution from 1813 to 1858 while his father, the Reverend Ralph Barnes (1731-1820), was a Residentiary Canon at Exeter Cathedral.

Jane Marcet wrote several ‘entry-level’ books on science. Conversations on Chemistry was her best-known work, intended principally (though not exclusively) for the education of women. Marcet conceived the book as a series of “familiar conversations” between a teacher, Mrs Bryant, and her pupils, Emily and Caroline; Marcet believed this dramatized presentation would be better suited to women whose “education is seldom calculated to prepare their minds for abstract ideas of scientific language.” Even so, in her preface, Marcet treads carefully and apologises for any “faults” in her work. She refers to her considerable expertise humbly as “her little stock of chemical knowledge” but she also defends her right to contribute to science: 

the author was more than once checked in her progress by the apprehension that such an attempt might be considered by some, either as unsuited to the ordinary pursuits of her sex, or ill justified by her own recent and imperfect knowledge of the subject. But, on the one hand, she felt encouraged by the establishment of those public institutions, open to both sexes, for the dissemination of philosophical knowledge, which clearly prove that the general opinion no longer excludes women from an acquaintance with the elements of science.”  

Over the next thirty or so years, the book was re-issued in sixteen editions and continued to inspire a fascination for chemistry even into the early 20th century.

Come and join our celebrations:

Exeter Cathedral:  Tuesday 14 March 11am – 1pm

Discover historical masterpieces of chemistry and alchemy from Exeter Cathedral Library’s science and medicine collection, including Johann Glauber’s fascinating design for a 17th century sauna – “a wooden Box for a dry Bath to provoke sweat” – and an explosive treatise by George Starkey, a self-confessed ‘Philosopher of Fire’, on the “worthie Art and Artists of Chymistry and Pyrotechny.” Find out more >

Devon and Exeter Institution: Wednesday 15 March 1pm-4pm

Every Wednesday afternoon, the Devon and Exeter Institution runs free tours of its beautiful Georgian library. Those visiting on Wednesday 15 March will have the chance to view some treasures from the science collections, chiefly those concerned with popularising the study of chemistry during the nineteenth century. These include Frederick Accum’s A system of theoretical and practical chemistry, (1803), which sought to inspire beginners to the world of chemistry, and Samuel Parkes’ A chemical catechism, (1806), originally written as a series of chemistry lessons for his nine-year-old daughter Sarah.