Although principally known for her travel writing, Maria Graham (1785-1842) was also a woman with strong scientific interests, principally in the fields of botany, geology and mineralogy. These interests inform her travelogues (to India, Italy, Brazil and Chile), and they also led to more direct contributions to contemporary science.
Graham’s enthusiasm for science was kindled at school, but it was a move to Edinburgh, in 1803 when Maria was 18, that brought her into contact with leading scientists. The geologist John Playfair was soon a mentor, as were the chemists John Leslie and Thomas Hope. Later, in London, Graham became a close friend of Mary Somerville and Jane Marcet, two women at the heart of the early nineteenth-century scientific community. The botanists Robert Browne and William Hooker were also important associates.
Maria Graham on her travels in Chile (she’s in the carriage, wearing the hat!). This is the only drawing she made of herself on her travels. From Maria Graham, A Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the Year 1822.
Throughout her extensive travels, Graham assiduously collected plants, insects, rocks and minerals, and these specimens were subsequently shared with experts at home. Her most significant contribution to geology, however, came when she experienced a major earthquake in Chile in 1822. Graham published her observations of the quake and its aftermath in 1824 in the Transactions of the Geological Society [pdf]. The first article by a woman to appear in the journal, Graham’s report was a key source cited by Charles Lyell in his seminal Principles of Geology (1830), since it supported his ‘Vulcanist’ theory that earthquakes could cause the elevation of landmasses.
However, controversy soon followed. In 1834, another leading geologist, George Bellas Greenough, chose to attack Lyell’s Vulcanist theory by questioning the reliability of his principal witness:
“Who on the morrow of so fearful a catastrophe could command sufficient leisure and calmness to determine and compute a series of changes, which extended 100 miles in length, and embraced (according to a statement in the Journal of Science,) an estimated area of 100,000 square miles?”–G.B. Greenough, 1834 Presidential Address to the Geological Society. Published in Athenaeum, June 14th 1834, p.456 [pdf]
Graham was incensed by Greenough’s allegations, which seemed to imply that as a woman she must have been too terrified to record events accurately. She riposted with a pamphlet of her own, initiating an acrimonious dispute which was closely followed by the larger geological community in Britain, Europe and the USA.
“That [my] observations were not confirmed by any naval officer, may, perhaps, be accounted for in common candour, by the consideration, that at the time of the Earthquake, there was not a ship of war, belonging either to England, the United States, or France on the coast.”–Maria Graham’s dead-pan defence against one of Greenough’s criticisms [pdf]
In 1836, Graham was vindicated when Charles Darwin and the Beagle witnessed similar effects during another earthquake in Chile; additionally, Darwin made a point of visiting one of the key sites described by Graham in her 1824 report. Even prior to this confirmation, however, Graham seems to have won the argument with Greenough. As the American Journal of Science and Arts put it at the time, ‘the geological world’ generally felt that she had ‘fully sustained herself in the controversy’.
The episode has received some attention from modern historians of science, but scholars have assumed that Graham was not a scientist herself, just a ‘lay person’ or ‘amateur’ who happened to witness events interesting to scientific experts. Yet this is inappropriate terminology for an era of ‘polite science’, when scientific endeavour was not yet as institutionalized or professionalized as it would later become. Recent research has shown that Graham was both a competent geological fieldworker and theoretically well-informed; she accordingly deserves recognition for her small but not insignificant role in early nineteenth-century earth science.
Written by Carl Thompson, who tweets as @drCT1
Carl Thompson (2012), Earthquakes and Petticoats: Maria Graham, Geology, and Early Nineteenth-Century “Polite Science” [paywall]. Journal of Victorian Culture 17.3. DOI:10.1080/13555502.2012.686683
Maria Graham’s Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the Year 1822
The Maria Graham Project at Nottingham Trent University
For more on women’s participation in the early nineteenth-century culture of ‘polite science’, see also James Secord, ‘How Scientific Conversation Became Shop Talk’, in Aileen Fyfe and Bernard Lightman (eds) Science in the Marketplace: Nineteenth-Century Sites and Experiences (2007)