Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673) was one of the first prolific female science writers. As the author of approximately 14 scientific or quasi-scientific books, she helped to popularize some of the most important ideas of the scientific revolution, including the competing vitalistic and mechanistic natural philosophies and atomism. A flamboyant and eccentric woman, Cavendish was the most visible of the "scientific ladies" of the seventeenth century.
Margaret Lucas was born into a life of luxury near Colchester, England, in 1623, the youngest of eight children of Sir Thomas Lucas. She was educated informally at home. At the age of eighteen, she left her sheltered life to become Maid of Honor to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, accompanying the queen into exile in France following the defeat of the royalists in the civil war. There she fell in love with and married William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, a 52 year-old widower, who had been commander of the royalist forces in the north of England. Joining other exiled royalists in Antwerp, the couple rented the mansion of the artist Rubens. Margaret Cavendish was first exposed to science in their informal salon society, "The Newcastle Circle," which included the philosophers Thomas Hobbes, René Descartes, and Pierre Gassendi. She visited England in 1651-52 to try to collect revenues from the Newcastle estate to satisfy their foreign creditors. It was at this time that Cavendish first gained her reputation for extravagant dress and manners, as well as for her beauty and her bizarre poetry.
Cavendish prided herself on her originality and boasted that her ideas were the products of her own imagination, not derived from the writings of others. Cavendish's first anthology, Poems, and Fancies, included the earliest version of her natural philosophy. Although English atomic theory in the seventeenth century attempted to explain all natural phenomena as matter in motion, in Cavendish's philosophy all atoms contained the same amount of matter but differed in size and shape; thus, earth atoms were square, water particles were round, atoms of air were long, and fire atoms were sharp. This led to her humoral theory of disease, wherein illness was due to fighting between atoms or an overabundance of one atomic shape. However in her second volume, Philosophical Fancies, published later in the same year, Cavendish already had disavowed her own atomic theory. By 1663, when she published Philosophical and Physical Opinions, she had decided that if atoms were "Animated Matter," then they would have "Free-will and Liberty" and thus would always be at war with one another and unable to cooperate in the creation of complex organisms and minerals. Nevertheless, Cavendish continued to view all matter as composed of one material, animate and intelligent, in contrast to the Cartesian view of a mechanistic universe.
Cavendish and her husband returned to England with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and, for the first time, she began to study the works of other scientists. Finding herself in disagreement with most of them, she wrote Philosophical Letters: or, Modest Reflections upon some Opinions in Natural Philosophy, maintained by several Famous and Learned Authors of this Age, Expressed by way of Letters in 1664. Cavendish sent copies of this work, along with Philosophical and Physical Opinions, by special messenger to the most famous scientists and celebrities of the day. In 1666 and again in 1668, she published Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, a response to Robert Hooke's Micrographia, in which she attacked the use of recently-developed microscopes and telescopes as leading to false observations and interpretations of the natural world. Included in the same volume with Observations was The Blazing World was a semi-scientific utopian romance, in which Cavendish declared herself "Margaret the First."
More than anything else, Cavendish yearned for the recognition of the scientific community. She presented the universities of Oxford and Cambridge with each of her publications and she ordered a Latin index to accompany the writings she presented to the University of Leyden, hoping thereby that her work would be utilized by European scholars.
After much debate among the membership of the Royal Society of London, Cavendish became the first woman invited to visit the prestigious institution, although the controversy had more to due with her notoriety than with her sex. On May 30, 1667, Cavendish arrived with a large retinue of attendants and watched as Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke weighed air, dissolved mutton in sulfuric acid, and conducted various other experiments. It was a major advance for the scientific lady and a personal triumph for Cavendish.
Cavendish published the final revision of her Philosophical and Physical Opinions, entitled Grounds of Natural Philosophy, in 1668. Significantly more modest than her previous works, in this volume Cavendish presented her views somewhat tentatively and retracted some of her earlier, more extravagant claims. Cavendish acted as her own physician, and her self-inflicted prescriptions, purgings, and bleedings resulted in the rapid deterioration of her health. She died in 1673 and was buried in Westminster Abbey.
Although her writings remained well outside the mainstream of seventeenth-century science, Cavendish's efforts were of major significance. She helped to popularize many of the ideas of the scientific revolution and she was one of the first natural philosophers to argue that theology was outside the parameters of scientific inquiry. Furthermore, her work and her prominence as England's first recognized woman scientist argued strongly for the education of women and for their involvement in scientific pursuits. In addition to her scientific writings, Cavendish published a book of speeches, a volume of poetry, and a large number of plays. Several of the latter, particularly The Female Academy, included learned women and arguments in favor of female education. Her most enduring work, a biography of her husband, included as an appendix to her 24 page memoir, was first published in 1656 as a part of Nature's Pictures. This memoir is regarded as the first major secular autobiography written by a woman.
Alic, Margaret, Hypatia's Heritage: A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, Beacon Press, 1986.
Battigelli, Anna, Margaret Cavendish and the Exiles of the Mind, University Press of Kentucky, 1998.
Grant, Douglas, Margaret the First: A Biography of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, 1623-1673, University of Toronto Press, 1957.
Kargon, Robert Hugh, Atomism in England from Hariot to Newton, Clarendon, 1966.
Meyer, Gerald Dennis, The Scientific Lady in England 1650-1760: An Account of her Rise, with emphasis on the Major Roles of the Telescope and Microscope, University of California Press, 1955.
Schiebinger, Londa, The Mind Has No Sex? Women in the Origins of Modern Science, Harvard University Press, 1989.
Journal of English and Germanic Philology, April 1952.