Just why does Victorian science rule?

We’ve been having a great time at the Ragged School Museum with our amazing Easter holiday activities. The theme was Victorian science, giving us a chance to learn a lot about some fantastic men and fabulous women who discovered, designed and invented things we now take for granted. So we thought we would tell you just a few of the interesting facts we found out that inspired our arts and crafts this Easter…


Seaweed collecting

Some Seaweed Cyanotypes made by our visitors this Easter

Some Seaweed Cyanotypes made by our visitors this Easter

The Victorians thought that understanding the natural world was a way to appreciate God and famous naturalists like Charles Darwin made studying science and nature popular. Collecting seaweed was a safe and Romantic way for young women to explore the natural world, allowing them to create something both beautiful and educational. The hobby was so popular even the young Queen Victoria had a seaweed scrapbook. By the 1840s there were lots of books around to help people identify and preserve seaweed, including Anna Atkins’ series ‘Photographs of British Algae’; these are considered the first ever books of photography, and Atkins the first female photographer. The photographs were created by pressing seaweed onto photo-sensitive paper, creating striking blue and white images when exposed to light; this type of photograph is called cyanotype impression.


William and Caroline Herschel, were a brother and sister team who discovered Uranus. At first Caroline would write up William’s observations, but at his encouragement she started to make her own observations. After William’s death Caroline carried on the work he had started discovering a total of 8 comets, one of which bears her name. Caroline went on to be one of the first female members of the Royal Astronomical Society.


For centuries people had been finding fossilized bones, but it wasn’t until 1815 that Thomas Buckland recognized that these bones belonged to an enormous reptile. In 1842 Sir Richard Owen coined the term ‘Dinosaur’, meaning ‘terrible lizard’, to describe these ancient reptiles. Scientists fought over excavation sites, wanting to discover a new species which they could name. Mary Anning was a working class woman from Lyme Regis who made several significant finds, including the first complete Ichthyosaur in 1810-1811. Her male colleagues acknowledged her as an expert on fossils, and she helped establish geology as a scientific discipline.


Rrrraaaarrrr!!! Some more of our holiday creations

Rrrraaaarrrr!!! Some more of our holiday creations.

In 1865 Elizabeth Garret Anderson became the first Englishwoman to qualify as a physician and surgeon in Britain. However, no hospital would offer her a position, so she set up her own practice later that year. The Society of Apothecaries also changed the regulations so that no other woman could get a license. This was eventually reversed in 1876, allowing Sophia Jex Blake to qualify. She became the first female practising doctor in Scotland, opening her first practice in 1878. Together, Garrett Anderson and Jex Blake founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, the only teaching hospital offering courses to women.

Our own X-ray experiments!

Our own X-ray experiments!


X-rays were first studied in the Victorian period by a German physicist called Wilhelm Röntgen, who made an image of his wife’s hand in 1895. By 1896 the Glasgow Royal Infirmary had a x-ray department, and Dr Hall-Edwards became the first doctor to use x-ray images to make a diagnosis. However, the process was quite dangerous, causing hair loss and severe burns; throughout the 20th century more measures were taken to protect doctors and patients from this damage.

Researched and written for our Families Programme by one of our amazing Learning Volunteers, Nicola Whittington



This is just a small smattering of the information that we looked into to make our holiday come alive. The list of great women and men of Victorian science is endless and truly inspirational. They really did alter the world today. What really stands out for me is the range and achievement of women in the field that really made great strides not only in science but also in furthering gender equality; a truly great feat considering the times in which they were living!

Learning Officer, Jennie Saunders




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