I recently observed a conference panel discussing the role of gender in the Victorian scientific community–in other words, how was the study of botany, biology, natural history, etc. different for men and women at this time?
It was a really fascinating panel, but one of the papers made me stop all academic thought and think instead, “GET ME TO MY BLOG IMMEDIATELY.”
The panelist was discussing how sense of propriety seemed to (sometimes delightfully) go out the window for women investigating scientific disciplines, only to have it come back even stronger in their personal and social life. By acting (or writing about themselves acting) with the utmost decency, sometimes to the point of primness and prissiness, it enabled them to get away with their other, professional, less traditionally feminine occupations, like trekking through jungles and getting themselves into and out of danger.
The Victorian biologist and paleontologist Sir Richard Owen and his wife got to experience one of these examples first hand. His wife kept a diary of some of his exploits, and I would LOVE if someone could find me this specific excerpt. I haven’t read it, so I’m only recounting what I heard (and jotted down quickly at the panel).
Apparently a lady in Owen’s scientific circle (I’m not sure who, so a name would be very helpful) came to visit Owen’s house, excited over some new discovery. In her fervor, she opened up her handbag and pulled out a kangaroo fetus to show him.
Shortly thereafter, she gasped when she noticed the time, as it was positively indecent for her, an unchaperoned woman, to be visiting a man in private at such an hour.
Kangaroo fetus rolling around in your purse? NBD
Visiting after five? THE HEIGHT OF SCANDALAMITY
Further details would be really useful in examining this scene, however. I’d love to know firstly who this woman was, what she was working on, what year this was, what time it was, if Owen’s wife was present (I doubt it) and, if not, what her reaction was upon being told the story. It clearly made enough of an impression for her to write it down as one of the highlights of the day.
That said, I imagine living with Owens was no easy feat. According to Owen’s biographical page on the Berkeley website here, rotting exotic animal parts were no stranger to his house:
“His wife Caroline recorded in her diary how, one summer day, ‘the presence of a portion of the defunct elephant on the premises‘ rendered the house so foul-smelling that she ‘got R. to smoke cigars all over the house.'”