Thirty early modern women in science

For Women’s History month, I tweeted about a different early modern woman in science every day. Here’s a storify of those tweets. I thought it might be useful, in the longer format of a blog post, to provide some references for those wishing to find out more about these women. This is not intended as an exhaustive bibliography, but just a starting point. For some of these women, there are very useful books and/or articles and/or websites. For others, there are only brief mentions in primary or secondary sources. This is perhaps idiosyncratic, as I frequently list the book or article in which I first encountered an early modern woman scientist. This is also my opportunity to acknowledge many of my wonderful women (and some men) colleagues who have uncovered the lives of these early modern women, and provided me with material for teaching more inclusive courses on the history of science and medicine. On the subject of inclusivity, I note that I included only two women of color, and that’s something I’d like to do better next time I try to compose a list of women scientists in the past.

1. Maria Cunitz (1610-64)
Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century (2000).

Robert Hatch, The Cunitz Page

Maria Cunitz, Kepler’s Defender

2. Sophie Brahe (1556-1643)

John Christianson, On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 258-264.

3. Caterina Sforza (1463-1509)

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard, 20125), ch 1.

4. Teodora Danti (c 1498–c 1573)

Lione Pascoli’s Vite de Pittori, Scultori, ed Architetti Perugini (Lives of Perugian Painters, Sculptors and Architects) (1732), pp. 75-79. This has been translated in Julia K. Dabbs (ed.), Life stories of women artists, 1550–1800: an anthology (Burlington, 2009), pp. 209-12, with introductory material by Dabbs on pp. 205-8.

5. Anne Conway, Viscountess Conway and Killultagh (1631-79)

Project Vox: Conway

6. Maria Sybilla Merian

Janice Neri, The Insect and the Image: Visualizing Nature in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1700 (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), ch. 5.

The Woman Who Made Science Beautiful

7. Anna Zieglerin (c. 1550–75)

Tara E. Nummedal,  “Alchemical Reproduction and the Career of Anna Maria Zieglerin” Ambix, Vol. 48, No. 2 (Jul. 2001) Pp. 56-68.

Tara Nummedal, “Anna Zieglerin’s Alchemical Revelations” in Alisha Rankin and Elaine Leong (eds.), Secrets and Knowledge in Medicine and Science (Ashgate, 2011).

[Also Nummedal’s forthcoming book on Anna Zieglerin]

8. Jane Sharp (17th century)

Jane Sharp; Elaine Hobby, The Midwives Book: or the Whole Art of Midwifry Discovered (Oxford, 1999)

Elaine Hobby, “Secrets of the Female Sex: Jane Sharp, the female reproductive body, and early modern midwifery manuals” Women’s Writing 8.2 (2001): 201-12.

Katharine Phelps Walsh, “Marketing Midwives in Seventeenth-Century London: A Re-examination of Jane Sharp’s The Midwives Book,Gender & History Vol. 26 No. 2 August 2014, pp. 223-241. (With thanks to Helen King for sending me this reference.)

9. Margaret Cavendish (1623-73)

Project Vox

10. Anna of Saxony (1532-85)

Alisha Rankin, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), ch. 4.

11. Susanna Wright (1697–1784)

Zara Anishanslin, Portrait of a Woman in Silk: Hidden Histories of the British Atlantic World (Yale, 2016), pp. 158-9, 161, 308.

12. Sor Maria de Jesus de Agreda (1602-65)

13. Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-99) 

Massimo Mazzotti, The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).

14. Katherine Jones, Viscountess Ranelagh (1615-91)

Michelle Marie DiMeo, Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh (1615-91): science and medicine in a seventeenth-century Englishwoman’s writing. (PhD thesis, University of Warwick, 2009).

15. Denise Cavellat

Cavellat printing family

16. Ellen Cotes

17. Maria Winkelmann Kirch (1670-1720)

Sorry Caroline but you were not the first, Maria was

18. Rachel Ruysch (1664-1740)

Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie, The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives From Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, 2000

19. Grand Duchess Christina

Michael H. Shank, “Setting the Stage: Galileo in Tuscany, the Veneto, and Rome”  in Ernan McMullin (ed.), The Church and Galileo, pp. 57-87.

Shank notes: “Although historians of science pay little attention to her, she helped set the stage for at least three turning points in [Galileo’s] life” (p. 63)

20. Margherita Sarrocchi (1560-1617)

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard, 20125), ch 4.

21. Emilie du Chatelet (1706-49)

Project Vox

22. Paula de Eguiluz (16th century)

Pablo F. Gómez, “Incommensurable Epistemologies? The Atlantic Geography of Healing in the Early Modern Caribbean” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 44 (2014), 95-107.

Pablo F. Gómez, The Experiential Caribbean: Creating Knowledge and Healing in the Early Modern Atlantic (University of North Carolina Press, 2017).

23. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) 

Smallpox Vaccination in Turkey

24. Laura Bassi (1711 –78)

Paula Findlen, “Science as a Career in Enlightenment Italy: The strategies of Laura Bassi” in History of Women In the Sciences: Readings from Isis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

25. Camilla Erculiani (c.1540-c. 1590)

Meredith Ray, Daughters of Alchemy: Women and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy (Harvard, 20125), ch 4.

26. Anna Morandi Manzolini (1714 –74)

Rebecca Messbarger, The Lady Anatomist: The Life and Work of Anna Morandi Manzolini (University of Chicago Press, 2010).

Morandi and Manzolini’s Anatomical Waxworks

27. Elisabeth Paulsdatter (16th century)

John Christianson, On Tycho’s Island: Tycho Brahe and His Assistants, 1570-1601 (Cambridge, 2000), pp. 330-332.

28. Nurbanu Sultan (ca 1525 – 83)

29. Dorothea of Mansfeld (1493-1578) 

Alisha Rankin, Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), ch. 3.

Writing Recipes Down

30. Lady Frances Catchmay (d. 1629)

The Catchmay Project


Cooking in the Classroom; or, how to make a Hedge Hogg

This semester I tried a new type of assignment in my HSCI 3013 class. I had students transcribe and analyze recipes from an early modern English manuscript recipe book held by and digitized by the Wellcome Library in London.  You can find the catalog record, and link to the digital version of MS 8097 here.  According to the Wellcome catalog record, the manuscript is from the 17th and early 18th century.  It contains multiple hands, but none of the authors are known.  One section of the book contains recipes for food, and the other contains recipes for medicines.

One purpose of this assignment was to give students experience working with primary source documents. I modeled the assignment after Lisa Smith’s “An Experiment in Teaching Recipe Transcription” and Amy Tigner’s “Teaching Recipes”.  I drew considerable inspiration and numerous ideas from Colleen Kennedy’s “Baking a Pumpion Pye (c. 1670)” and Marissa Nicosia’s Lobsters in the Archives and the amazing blog Cooking in the Archives.  I will write more about how this assignment fit into a course on the history of science in a subsequent post.

My choice of this particular manuscript was serendipitous. A group of students in my HSCI 3013 class last fall found it while researching early modern diseases and remedies. (Their work on a remedy for jaundice is described in A Bill of Mortality (and a peck of snails) ) After they drew my attention to it, I started paging through the book, and I was utterly charmed. The culinary recipes are a delightful mix of the familiar (rice pudding and coffee cake) and the very unfamiliar (calfs head pie and roasted pigeons). The medical recipes evoke the pain and suffering of everyday life, both in the past and in the present: sore breasts from nursing, smallpox, coughs, back pain, burns, plague and miscarriages. The writers frequently name the people who gave them the recipes, suggesting a larger community and a network of people exchanging recipes and information. The recipe for preserving walnuts includes the detail that “Sir Harbottle Grimstone found great good by these, but he used to eat them dry [before] going to bed.” (MS8097a pg. 86). Although the authors of this book are unknown, every so often they use “I” or “my” or “me” in a recipe and one catches a fleeting glimpse of their lives. In a remedy “for a cold,” the author comments that this medicine is good for children’s coughs and adds, “mine found good by it” (MS8097a pg. 113). It was this last aspect of the book, these tantalizing glimpses of the lived experience of women and men and children in the past, that inspired me to incorporate this manuscript into my class.

One of my goals as a teacher of history is to bring the past alive, to get students to see people in the past as living, breathing, three-dimensional individuals. Once an elementary school teacher told me that one of her students asked if there was color in the past. She didn’t at first understand the question, but then she realized he was confused because historical photographs are all black and white or sepia-toned. He wondered if that was what the past actually looked like. I’ve always thought that this charmingly naïve question was actually pretty astute. Many students of history see the past in sepia tones, whether they realize it or not. It is especially easy for students in history of science classes to see the people we are studying (Galileo, Newton, Cavendish) as disembodied minds, not as people who had to fill their bellies, deal with aches and pains and attend to sick children. Further, most of the people we study in the history of science are named individuals (mostly men) who published their work, or who left written records that were carefully preserved by their families or students or friends or colleagues. I want my students to see that a much broader range of people, women as well as men, contributed to exploration of the natural world in the early modern period.

I intend to write at least two more posts on this manuscript and what my students were able to do with it. They have just turned in their assignments, and I am just beginning to sort through them. The day the project was due, my teaching assistant (Calandra McCool) and I recreated five recipes from the manuscript for students to taste. We chose the hedgehog (see below), rice pudding, taffity tart, coffee cake and fried cucumbers. We will write more about these recipes in a subsequent post. For now, I’d like to share my favorite, the hedgehog. Don’t worry, it’s not an ACTUAL hedgehog, but a dessert made to look like a hedgehog!

The hedgehog, p. 33.


To make a Hedge Hogg.

Take a pint of sweet Cream very thick, beat 2 whole eggs and strain them, put to it 2 spoonfulls of Sowre Cream, for want of that take butter milk, seting it together on the fire stiring it all one way untill it comes to curds and whey, then tye it into a strainer and let it hang up that the whey may run from it, when it has done droping take the curd and mix with it a quarter of a pound of blanched and beaten Almonds with roswater, sweeten it to your tast, make it in to the from [i.e. form] of a Hedge Hogg with a spoon in your dish, putting 2 curance for the 2 eyes keep out 10 Almonds to cut into long pieces and stick them on thick for bristles on the top, when you bring it to the table, have a pint of cream ready boyled and seasoned with sugar and rosewater and quite cold, put it to the hedghog so sende it up. this looks pritty and eats very well.

Here’s the recipe in somewhat modernized form, although none of the ingredients have been altered. I’ve added in a few measurements to reflect how much sugar and rosewater I used, but no one should feel bound by that.

For hedgehog:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

2 eggs

2 tablespoons sour cream or buttermilk

¼ pound blanched almonds, finely ground

1 tablespoon rose water

¼ cup sugar

3 raisins or currants

Slivered almonds

For sauce:

1 pint heavy whipping cream

1 tablespoon rosewater

Sugar to taste


  1. Combine heavy whipping cream and sour cream (or buttermilk) in a saucepan.
  2. Beat two eggs together and add them to the cream mixture through a strainer.
  3. Heat the cream and egg mixture over medium heat, stirring constantly. Do not allow the mixture to boil over.
  4. After about 20 minutes, the mixture will start to thicken and form curds. Continue stirring until it is about the texture of cottage cheese (the curds are not quite this big, and there will be a bit more liquid).
  5. But the mixture into a cheesecloth bag. I placed a wide strip of cheesecloth over a plate (with the edges hanging over the plate), dumped the mixture onto the cheesecloth on the plate, and then wrapped the edges of the cheesecloth around the entire mixture, gently squeezing out excess liquid.10399442_928325990534295_2492489343551749772_n
  6. Hang the bag over a bowl and allow it to drip for a while. I let it drip for over an hour the first time I tried this. That’s longer than it needed to get all the liquid out, but you also want it to cool down enough that you can handle it.
  7. When the bag of curds has stopped dripping and is cool enough to handle, add the ground almonds, sugar and rosewater. I ground the almonds in “ye Olde Cuisinart.” If that’s not authentic enough for you, I suppose you could use a mortar and pestle, or just chop them super fine with a knife. I used ¼ cup sugar and a tablespoon of rosewater, but you could use more or less. (It tastes fine without the rosewater, if you can’t find this.)
  8. Shape the resulting mixture into a hedgehog. (Note: the first time I tried this recipe, the mixture was a bit too mushy to mold properly so I stuck it in the refrigerator for about an hour to stiffen it up. Then it worked fine. The second time I guess I’d gotten the hang of it, because I was able to shape it immediately after mixing it.) A hedgehog is basically a dome, with a pointy head stuck on it. Add raisins or currants for eyes and nose and stick slivered almonds all over the dome to make the bristles. Refrigerate until you are ready to serve. Keeps fine overnight.
  9. Full disclosure – this little beasty is so rich I did not actually feel the need to douse him in sweetened cream, so I did not make the sauce. But if you want to go whole hog (or whole hedgehog), heat a pint of heavy cream over medium heat, add sugar to taste and stir until dissolved. Take off heat, add rosewater and chill.


I was INCREDIBLY pleased with how this came out. While I am a pretty competent cook and baker, I am NOT skilled at things like cake decoration. I DO NOT attempt anything I see on Pinterest. But this actually looks like a hedgehog! And I thought it tasted delicious. It’s a bit like mascarpone with ground almonds, although the flavor is definitely creamy, not at all cheesy. My students seemed to like it as well. Several took pictures of it before we cut it up, and there was none left over.

11096416_928325980534296_5544407784547787657_nMy three-year-old son Niels was so disappointed that I was taking the hedgehog to my class that I had to promise to make him another one. For Niels’s hedgehog, I halved the recipe and used chocolate chips for the eyes and nose because he doesn’t like raisins.