Dolley Payne Todd: Life Before James Madison

Dolley c. 1800 (source)

Dolley c. 1800 (source)

Although Dolley Madison liked to refer to herself as a “Virginian, born and bred”, she was actually born in North Carolina. In 1765, her father, John Payne was admitted to the Cedar Creek meeting, the local Society of Friends, or Quaker, congregation. It was not a quick decision; he had been married to Mary Coles for three years, and marriages with non-Quakers were frowned upon. But, when he did join he pursued it with the zeal of a new convert. Six months later, John and Mary took their young son Walter and moved to the wilds of North Carolina with a number of other Quaker families to begin a new settlement.

John Payne and Mary Coles were from two of the oldest families in Virginia. According to Allgor, they had the three most important things for Virginia gentry, “lineage, land, and the ownership of enslaved peoples.” (At the time, it wasn’t a requirement that Quakers free their slaves. Also, a 1723 law in Virginia required approval of the governor and council to manumit slaves.)

John sold all of his land holdings in Virginia and purchased land in North Carolina. He was referred to as a merchant, but there is no record of what he sold. However, the move must not have been a successful one. In 1769, he sold his North Carolina land at a loss and moved his family back to Virginia, this time with another son, William Temple, and their first daughter Dolley, born on May 20, 1768.

Once again in the Cedar Creek meeting, they were surrounded by friends and extended family. For the next fifteen years, the family farmed and expanded. Five more children followed Dolley: Isaac, Lucy, Anne, Mary Coles, and John Coles. Quakers believed in educating girls as well as boys, and although we don’t know specifics about Dolley’s education her writing indicates that she was well-educated for the time.

After the Revolutionary War and changes in the laws of the new state, John manumitted his slaves. Without them it was impossible to farm at the level he had, so he decided to move the family to Philadelphia in 1783. By this time, Dolley was a vivacious fifteen with black hair, blue eyes, and a winning smile. She made quite an impression on the young men in the Society of Friends in Philadelphia and in nearby Haddonfield, New Jersey, one of the oldest Quaker communities in the country.

John Payne did well initially, too. He became an elder and began to preach in meetings. He was strict and exacting in his faith, but his business skills were not any better than they were in North Carolina. By 1789, his business went under and he was read out of the Pine Street Meeting. Whether this was simply because failure in business indicated a weak character to the other Friends, or because of some shady business deals, I’m not sure. Nevertheless, depressed, John took to his bed.

Mary Payne was a woman of strong character and determination, and Dolley adored her. When she realized she could no longer depend on John to support the family, she opened her home to boarders. In 1791, the fledgeling government moved the capital to Philadelphia and Mary catered to congressmen. She earned a reputation for running a “good house” and by the time John died in Oct of 1792, she had a thriving business.

In spite of his strict religious views, John wasn’t able to completely control his oldest daughter. One of the women in their meeting recalled years later that Dolley was inappropriate in her choice of caps, gowns, and “the shape of her shoes.” However, he did impose his will on her in the choice of a husband.

John Todd was a successful attorney and a Quaker. He was tall and handsome, and apparently had not given up when Dolley originally turned him down. They were married on January 7, 1790, and even though he may not have been her first choice, they appear to have had a happy marriage. But, this happiness didn’t last long.

John Payne Todd c. 1817 by Joseph Wood (source)

John Payne Todd c. 1817 by Joseph Wood (source)

Dolley’s first son, John Payne Todd, was born on February 29,1792. He was healthy and happy and joined by a baby brother, William Temple Todd, in the summer of 1793. Sadly a yellow fever epidemic also reached Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. The symptoms of the disease are terrifying and the cause wouldn’t be known for another 100 years. The entire city was in a panic. (It would kill almost 10 percent of the population before winter came, killing the mosquitoes.)

In August, although Dolley had just given birth, John Todd sent her and the boys out of the city for their protection. Mary Payne went with them to care for them, but John had to return to the city. He had his parents to care for as well as clients, many of whom had legal matters to attend to because of deaths in the family.

For the Todd family, October was the fateful month. John nursed both of his parents and his law clerk, but to no avail. They all three died and Dolley was frantic for John’s safety. He finally agreed to close his law firm and join her. When he did, he stayed in another part of the house to avoid bringing the infection to the family. (Not knowing yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes, they believed it was contagious.)

Ironically, after surviving his time in the city, John came down with the fever after spending the evening hunting in the marsh. In an effort to protect the family, he returned to the city. There he died on October 14, 1793, the same day the baby, William, died.

Dolley was bereft, but she was also out of money. Mary Payne had to write to Philadelphia to get money for William’s funeral and for the move home. Once they were back, she should have been fine, but there were complications. John had designated Dolley his executrix as well as leaving her “all his worldly goods.” Since John’s parents died before he did, she was also due his portion of their estate.

In a city with over 5000 deaths, the courts were overloaded, and even though John’s will was clear, his brother James, a bank clerk, wouldn’t hand over any of the money to Dolley. He wouldn’t even turn over copies of both of the wills or any of John’s other papers. When she pressed him, he suggested that she sell items from the house that were in her possession. She steadfastly refused to sell the library books! Finally, after numerous requests and demands, James settled out of court, but only after she got a lawyer.

Dolley was now a wealthy widow. At 25, she was tall, beautiful, and very eligible. Supposedly, men stood at the end of her street to get a glimpse of her. But this eligibility wouldn’t last. It wasn’t long before she caught the eye of, and was formally introduced to, in her words, the “great little Madison.”

Dolley Madison c. 1804 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

Dolley Madison c. 1804 by Gilbert Stuart (source)

A Perfect Union: Dolley Madison and the Creation of the American Nation by Catherine Allgor
The History Chicks podcast on Dolley Madison
CSPAN First Ladies Influence and Image

Maria Angela Ardinghelli – Italian Scientist and Translator (1730–1825)

During the time of Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi, there was another learned woman of mathematics and science. Maria Angela Ardinghelli was well-known during her time, although she has been overlooked from a historical perspective, or known simply as a translator of works by Stephen Hales. In fact, she was the only woman whose letters were read at the meetings of the Paris Academy of Sciences on a regular basis. Bertucci describes her as a de facto foreign correspondent of the scientific activities in Italy. She sent them meteorological data, natural history information about Naples, and reports of unusual medical cases.

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Ardinghelli’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished in Italy, having moved from Florence to Naples when the Medici family came to power. But Nicola, her father, married against his parents’ wishes and was punished accordingly. He was denied his hereditary titles and was restricted to a very modest fortune. Nicola and his wife, Caterina Piccillo, had two children, but Maria Angela’s brother died young, so she was raised an only child. Her father provided her with the best available tutors for her education. She studied mathematics, natural philosophy, English, French and Latin.

In 1734, Naples gained a new king, Charles of Bourbon, and became an autonomous kingdom for the first time in centuries. Charles wanted to revive the university and cultural life of the city. Fernando Spinelli, prince of Tarsia, organized a public library and museum at his palace, and one of Maria Angela’s tutors was curator of the “physics cabinet” and a teacher at the new Academia Spinella. In 1747, to celebrate the opening of the library and birth of the crown prince, Spinelli dedicated a celebration to the king in which guests recited poems. Maria Angela was one of the ladies who spoke, and astonished everyone by composing her poem in Latin.

The Palazzo Tarsia was known for experiments with electricity and its association with Newton. It was also a place where Maria Angela could safely pursue knowledge and display her own talents. There she was seen as the protégé of Della Torre and her other teachers, rather than a woman “experimenting alone with men in the dark.” (I’m not really sure what the distinction is, because she is depicted in at least one image, while engaged in experiments, as the only woman surrounded by men.)

The Spinella Academy was intentionally modeled on the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, and Maria Angela contributed to this association by dedicating her translation of Stephen Hales’s Haemastaticks to the former French ambassador, the marquis De L’Hôpital. However, her translations were much more than literary works; they were annotated texts where she added commentary in footnotes, the dedication and a section titled “To the Reader.” In this way she was able to evaluate the science without exposing herself to ridicule.

In the case of Haemastaticks, she worked with both the English original and the French translation by François Bossier de Sauvages, and even corrected the French translation. She translated De Sauvages’ footnotes, repeated his calculations, and wrote her own footnotes. She also bolstered her own credibility by corresponding with the author to clarify the text. She was careful not to overstep the boundaries of modesty by not presuming to take the same position as De Sauvage, who replicated Hale’s experiments with a view of challenging them, but still made her mastery of the concepts clear with her commentary. When she did report on her own experiments, she framed the discussion as an invitation to explore with her, by following her thought process, as opposed to a challenge to the authority of her male colleagues.

Maria Angela’s efforts were very successful. A positive review by Giovanni Lami in the Florence’s Literary News brought her to the attention of other Italians; Hale was enormously pleased and encouraged her to translate his Vegetable Staticks as well; even De Sauvages was pleased in the end because of the increase in his international reputation. She did translate Vegetable Staticks with the result of increasing her reputation in France as well as Italy.

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Her family was also supportive, and she began to host conversazioni which were well attended by both local academics and visiting foreigners. This is where she met Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French Abbé and physicist. Nollet and the academics at Palazzo Tarsia were both eager to solidify connections between Naples and France, so Della Torre introduced Nollet to Maria Angela.

Nollet was very impressed and spent several evenings at her home attending her conversazioni. They began a correspondence in which they exchanged academic works as well as discussing more personal matters, but he also encouraged his colleagues to correspond with her and to visit when they were in Naples. Their relationship was misunderstood by at least one colleague, partly because people had difficulty believing that a relationship between a man and woman, based on an interest in the physical world,  could be without “suggestive overtones.”

Not only was Maria Angela’s family supportive, but she was devoted to them as well and had no desire to travel herself. She turned down a marriage proposal from a French architect as well as an invitation to become tutor to the princesses at Versailles. But she was happy to be a contact for visiting academics who wanted to experience the natural history of Naples. Over time, she became a mediator between scholars in Paris and Naples and was relied on to circulate papers and information coming from Paris.

In spite of this support, not everyone welcomed women into intellectual circles and at some point Maria Angela began to publish anonymously. Bertucci suggests that it is likely related to the death of her father which occurred sometime before 1765. Without a male protector, she ran the risk of losing her respectability. She didn’t give up scientific work, however she had to be more circumspect about her image.

Maria Angela did marry, sometime after the death of her mother, prior to 1777. Her husband, Carlo Crispo, was a magistrate in Calabria, in the south of the Kingdom of Naples. She continued her correspondence with scholars in Naples and France, and helped Crispo expand his own circle of contacts. She was able to help him advance in his career, eventually moving back to Naples where she helped him with his work and gave up science.

She left Naples during the revolution of 1799, but returned during the Napoleonic era. Over the years she had continued to teach privately and had a respectable income which sustained her during her 24 years as a widow, before her death in 1825.

Note: I couldn’t find an image of Ardinghelli in the public domain. There is a medallion which was sculpted of her that can be viewed here.

Bertucci, Paola, “The In/visible Woman: Mariangela Ardinghelli and the Circulation of Knowledge between Paris and Naples in the Eighteenth Century“, Isis, Vol. 104, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 226-249.
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

7 Women Explorers You Should Know

I’ve become interested lately in women who are travelers and explorers. They have been motivated by different things, including adventure, exploration, study of cultures, or simply to exert their independence.  I’m planning several posts about individual women, but in the mean time, here is a list of 7 travelers you may not know.

Imagined portrait of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (source)

Imagined portrait of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (source)

Jeanne Baré (1740-1807), possibly the first western woman to sail across the Pacific, was a member of a round the world expedition led by the French explorer Bougainville. She disguised herself as a man and went on board as the valet to a man named Philibert Commerson, a doctor and botanist. Baré, whose name is sometimes spelled Baret, turned out to be an excellent botanist, and years later was granted a pension by the French government for her work as Commerson’s assistant. It’s not clear whether or not Commerson knew of her disguise, was complicit, or was in fact her lover, but when they reached Tahiti, the natives had no doubt about her gender and exposed her. Baré left no record of her own, but Bougainville says that she finished her voyage “very agreeably.”

Lady Hester Stanhope (source)

Lady Hester Stanhope (source)

Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839), after serving as chief of the household and hostess for her uncle, British Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, set sail for the Middle East in 1810, never to return. After being shipwrecked on Rhodes and losing all of her possessions, she chose to dress like a man, possibly to avoid having to wear a veil. In 1815, she convinced the Ottoman authorities to let her excavate at Ashkelon, north of Gaza. Controversially, when they unearthed a seven-foot marble statue, she ordered the workers to smash it and throw it into the sea. She eventually settled in Sidon, on the coast of present day Lebanon, where she lived until her death.

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for collecting (source)

Ida Pfeiffer dressed for collecting (source)

Ida Laura Pfeiffer (1797-1858) was an Austrian traveler, author, and member of the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris. Her father allowed her to wear boys clothing and participate in sports; he also gave her an education typically given to boys. Her first long trip was to Palestine and Egypt when she was five years old, but further travel had to wait until she had raised two sons. Beginning in 1842, Pfeiffer traveled extensively, eventually visiting the Middle East, Scandinavia, South America, Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Greece, South Africa, North America, and Madagascar. She financed her travels by writing very popular books about her journeys and collecting specimens for museums in Berlin and Vienna.

“Many will perhaps believe that I undertook so long a journey from vanity. I can only say in answer to this . . . that nothing but a natural wish for travel, a boundless desire of acquiring knowledge, could ever overcome the hardships, privations and dangers to which I have been exposed.” ~ Ida Pfeiffer in A Woman’s Voyage

Rose de Freycinet (1817-1820) dressed in men’s clothes to accompany her husband, Louis de Freycinet, on a trip around the world, aboard the Uranie. At least initially. Her husband had command of the ship, but was commissioned by the French navy, and it was illegal for women to travel aboard French naval vessels. Once at sea, there was nothing the navy could do until they reached the next port of call. Even then, no action was taken and Rose continued her journey, becoming the first woman to document an around-the-world voyage, through her diary. Her journal wasn’t published until 1927 in France and the first English translation was produced in 1962.

Alexandrine Tinné c. 1850 by Henri Auguste d'Ainecy Montpezat (source)

Alexandrine Tinné c. 1850 by Henri Auguste d’Ainecy Montpezat (source)

Alexandrine Tinné (1835-1869) was a Dutch explorer and wealthy heiress. After her father’s death, Alexandrine and her mother traveled extensively in Norway, Italy, the Middle East and Egypt. In 1862, they traveled with Theodor von Heuglin and Hermann Steudner on an expedition, into what is today South Sudan, which produced important scientific results, but ended with the death of several of the party due to illness, including Alexandrine’s mother. Refusing to return to the Netherlands, she remained in Cairo taking short trips for the next several years. In 1869, Alexandrine attempted a journey into the Sahara toward Lake Chad. Her goal was to meet the Touaregs, nomads of central Africa. However, she didn’t make it, because on August 1st, she was murdered, struck twice with a sword and left to bleed to death. Her body was never found.

Annie Taylor c. 1902 by William Carey (source)

Annie Taylor c. 1902 by William Carey (source)

Annie Royle Taylor (1855-1922) was a British explorer, Christian missionary, and the first western woman known to have visited Tibet. She joined the China Inland Mission in 1884 and was stationed in Lanzhou on the border of Tibet. However, she was recalled due to poor health. Coming from a wealthy family, Taylor didn’t need the support of the Mission, so after recovering, she went on her own to India, then to Sikkim to study the Tibetan language at a Buddhist monastery. In 1889, she and a young man named Pontso, who had converted to Christianity, traveled to Tianshui in China, where they established a mission. Several years later, in 1892, Taylor and Pontso entered Tibet and attempted to reach Lhasa. The cold was bitter and there was dissension in her party, but they managed to get to within a three day journey of Lhasa before the authorities apprehended them. A year later, she organized her own mission, the Tibetan Pioneer Mission, but it fell apart within a year. Taylor was persistent however, and in 1904 joined the Younghusband Expedition to Tibet.

Mary Kingsley, from her book "West African Studies", published in 1901 (source)

Mary Kingsley, from her book “West African Studies”, published in 1901 (source)

Mary Kingsley (1862-1900) was an explorer and writer who traveled extensively in West Africa. As with many young women during the 19th century, she was largely self-educated through her father’s library, where she preferred books on science and about explorers. After nursing both of her parents, who died in 1892, she was left with an inheritance which allowed her to travel. She chose West Africa, and during her initial trip to Sierra Leone and Angola, lived with local people and learned survival skills for the jungle. Her second trip was devoted to studying traditional religious practices and collecting zoological samples. On returning to England, Kingsley lectured frequently about African life and culture. She was critical of missionaries for their attempts to convert the African natives and force them to change aspects of their culture such as polygamy, and to some extent of British Imperialism, although her views are still debated today.

Forster, Honore (January 2000), “Voyaging Through Strange Seas: Four Women Travellers in the Pacific”, National Library of Australia News
West African Studies by Mary Kingsley at Internet Archive
On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet by Luree Miller
Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope by Kirsten Ellis

Frederika Charlotte Riedesel: Following the Hessian Army During the American Revolution

Fredrika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness von Riedesel (source)

Frederika Charlotte Louise von Massow, Baroness Riedesel by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tiscbein (source)

During the American Revolution, armies on both sides of the conflict had camp followers. Mostly women, they were often reviled even though their services were needed by the armies. The women cooked, did laundry, nursed the wounded, and transported gear from one battlefield to another. There were mistresses and prostitutes among them, but many were the wives and families of soldiers.

These women came from all walks of life. Among the Americans, we have all heard of Martha Washington’s visits to her husband’s winter camps. There were other officer’s wives who joined her and they made life in camp, if not luxurious, at least bearable. Other women were not so lucky, they often followed the army because their homes had been destroyed or were unsafe because of the location. Frequently their only source of income was the small salary received (intermittently) by their husbands. This was true for both revolutionary and loyalist families. In fact, many American women followed the British army, either because they were loyal to the cause, or simply because the British troops were better provisioned.

Senior British officers didn’t usually bring their wives over from England. However, they often had “camp wives” who took care of their needs, including sex. Sometimes these were the actual wives of non-commissioned officers. One of the more famous examples is Elizabeth Loring, wife of Joshua Loring, who kept General William Howe company for three years.

“Sir William he, snug as a flea
Lay all the time a snoring;
Nor dreamed of harm as he lay warm
in bed with Mrs. Loring” ~ Francis Hopkinson

This was not the habit of the Hession officers, however, and Friedrich Adolf Riedesel, Major General of the Brunswick troops, wanted his wife with him. Frederika had married Friedrich in 1762, when she was 16 years old and he 24, after she nursed him back to health following a wound he received during the Seven Years War. By the time the Duke of Brunswick signed a treaty to provide soldiers to the British for the American Revolution in 1776, they had two little girls,  Augusta and Frederica, and she was pregnant with their third.

Friedrich Adolf Riedesel c. 1790 (source)

Friedrich Adolf Riedesel c. 1790 (source)

Friedrich left in February of 1776, expecting Frederika to follow after the baby’s birth, however, it was April of 1777 before she was able to set sail for America. Two months after the birth of a third daughter, Carolina, she began her journey, traveling to England to meet the wife of another officer, Captain Foy. When she arrived in Bristol, she didn’t speak the language and was laughed at because of her clothes. Mrs. Foy also refused to leave until she had written permission from her husband, even though they needed to leave before the winter set in. This didn’t happen, so Frederika used the time to learn English and adjust her clothing choices.

“I discovered soon after my arrival in Bristol, how unpleasant it is to be in a city when one does not understand the language…I wept for hours in my chamber, until, finally, I gathered courage and resolved to surmount all difficulties. I took great pains to learn the English language, and in six weeks made such progress as to be able to call for what I wanted, and to understand the newspapers…”

Frederika’s father was a lieutenent general in the Prussian army. As he moved with the army he kept his family close, so Frederika knew what to expect as a camp follower. Still, it was a sacrifice to leave her comfortable home with small children in tow and evidence of her affection for her husband. The journey went well with the exception of seasickness among all her servants and at times the children. Friedrich was well-regarded, and she was treated well because of this and her good nature. In June, two months after leaving England, they arrived in Quebec.

“When it was known in Quebec that I was nearing the city, I was saluted with cannon by all the ships in the harbor; and at twelve o’clock, noon, we saw a boat approaching us, containing twelve sailors dressed in white, and wearing silver helmets and green sashes. These seamen had been sent to fetch me from the ship, and they brought me a letter from my husband, in which he wrote that he had been obliged to set out for the army.”

Frederika and the children had to travel for four days via carriage and canoe to reach Friedrich, but they finally had their joyous reunion. They were separated two days later when the troops left, and Frederika settled in at the convent of the Ursulines at Quebec to wait. Finally, at the end of the summer, Friedrich received permission from General Burgoyne to have Frederika and the children join him in route to capture Albany. They had a pleasant two weeks before hostilities broke out again.

Now at the scene of the fighting on the Hudson river, Frederika spent time comforting and helping the sick, wounded and dying. With her children and servants tucked “safely” in her carriage, she followed the army doing what she could to help. She was an eyewitness to the Battle of Freeman’s Farm in September, and present at the Battle of Bemis Heights where she had to clear the dinner table to make a bed for the wounded and dying General Simon Fraser. He had requested burial at 6:00 pm at a particular spot, this was carried out the next day, even though “cannon balls flew continually around and over the party.”

After serious fighting on October 7th, they marched through cold and wet weather to Saratoga. She had no place to change her wet clothes, but dressed her children and put them to sleep on the ground before the fire. The next day fighting resumed, but Frederika was able to find a house for shelter, where she organized the other wives and began to take in wounded and sick soldiers. They remained there for six day under siege and artillery bombardment.

“We were at last obliged to resort to the cellar for refuge, and in one corner of this I remained the whole day, my children sleeping on the earth with their heads in my lap; and in the same situation I passed a sleepless night. Eleven [cannon balls] passed through the house, and we could distinctly hear them roll away. One poor soldier who was lying on a table for the purpose of having his leg amputated, was struck buy a shot, which carried away his other; his comrades had left him, and when we went to his assistance we found him in a corner of the room, into which he had crept, more dead than alive, scarcely breathing”.

The Marshall House in 1867. Although in private hands, the house has been preserved to show the signs of its service during the war. (source)

The Marshall House in 1867 (in present day Schuylerville, New York.) Although in private hands, the house has been preserved to show the signs of its service during the war. (source)

On October 17, 1777, the British troops surrendered at Saratoga and Frederika joined her husband in being taken as a prisoner of war. She was frightened as they entered the American camp, but noticed looks of compassion on the faces of the men when they saw her with small children. When they stopped, a man helped the children down from the carriage and told her not to be afraid. Later, the same man offered to let Frederika and her children eat in his tent rather than with all the men. She accepted and had the best meal she had had in a long time. She then found out that he was the American General Schuyler, who also extended to her an invitation to stay at his home.

The Riedesel family stayed with the Schuylers for three days, unfortunately during that time all of Friedrich’s camp equipment was stolen. All they had left was the baggage Frederika had carried in her carriage for the children. It was three years before they were able to replace most of it. Three days later, the defeated army was moved to Boston and later to Virginia. The generals agreed to a “convention” rather than a “surrender”, so technically they were not prisoners of war, but neither were they free to return to Germany.

In November of 1779, Friedrich expected to be exchanged for an American prisoner and the family was allowed to go to New York City. The exchange fell through, but they were treated well by the American officers, and the governor of New York, William Tryon. In spite of this, life wasn’t easy. Although the army officers treated them well, they met with hostility from ordinary citizens and Friedrich’s health wasn’t good. While in Virginia, he suffered from an apparent heart attack and later in New York Friedrich, Augusta, and most of the servants came down with smallpox during an epidemic.

Three of the Riedesel daughters (source)

Three of the Riedesel daughters (source)

In July of 1781, the family left New York for Canada, finally headed for home, although it would be 1783 before they boarded a ship to sail back to Europe. A fourth child had been born in New York, a daughter they named America, and after their arrival in Canada a fifth daughter arrived who didn’t survive. (After the birth of America, Thomas Jefferson sent his condolences on the birth of another female.)

Life had been difficult for Frederika Riedesel and her family, but it was far more difficult for the lower class women and families who followed the army. Not only was their very survival at stake, but they were treated with disdain by many of the soldiers and citizens. Berkin suggests that the lower class women who did the laundry of the troops and scavenged clothing from the dead “were part of the military life that these men hoped would soon come to an end.” However, the general’s wives “served to distinguish masculine roles from feminine” and reminded them of “a world far removed from the brutality and violence of warfare.”

Christmas, 1781 in Canada. The Riedesels are credited with popularizing the German traditional Christmas Tree in the Americas. (source)

Christmas, 1781 in Canada. The Riedesels are credited with popularizing the German traditional Christmas Tree in the Americas. (source)

Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America’s Independence by Carol Berkin
The Women of the American Revolution by Elizabeth F. Ellet, Volume I
Letters and journals relating to the war of the American Revolution, and the capture of the German troops at Saratoga by Fredrika Riedesel, translated by William L. Stone, 1867.
Frederika Baroness Riedesel” by Lina Sinnickson, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1906.
Marshall House (Schuylerville, New York). (2014, October 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 16:15, April 8, 2015.

Sophie Germain: Mathematical Genius Emerging from the French Revolution

The Storming of the Bastille, artist unknown (source)

The Storming of the Bastille, artist unknown (source)

Born on April 1, 1776 in Paris, Sophie Germain grew up during a turbulent time. She was 13 years old in 1789 when the Bastille fell and life on the streets became very dangerous. Her parents, Ambroise-Franҫois and Marie-Madeline Germain, were wealthy. Ambroise was a merchant (some sources say silk, some say goldsmith) and elected as a deputy to the Estates-General. Sophie and her sisters would surely have heard intelligent conversation in their home, especially politics and philosophy.

The Germains were able to keep their daughters safe, but it did require remaining indoors most of the time. To keep herself occupied, Sophie turned to her father’s library. It wasn’t long before she ran across the story of the death of Archimedes in a book called The History of Mathematics by Jean-Étienne Montucla. Legend has it that Archimedes was so engrossed in a geometry problem that he didn’t realize Roman soldiers were about to kill him. Sophie thought that geometry must be very fascinating to cause Archimedes to ignore a threat to his life, so she decided to study math. This idea, however, didn’t please her parents.

Sophie Germain (source)

Sophie Germain (source)

Studying math and science wasn’t thought appropriate for women and girls except among the aristocrats. There wasn’t a need for it and some thought it harmful to a girls mind. Her parents did everything they could think of to discourage Sophie. When they forbid her to study these subjects, she appeared to comply, but waited until they went to sleep and studied by candlelight. When they discovered what she was doing, they took away her candles, put out her fire, and took away her clothes after she went to bed, so that she would sleep. She simply kept a stash of hidden candles, wrapped herself in quilts and continued. Even when it was cold enough to freeze the ink in the inkwell, they would find her asleep over her books. Finally, they gave in and let her choose her subjects.

Sophie studied philosophy, classics and math, even learning Latin and Greek to be able to read Newton, Euler and Virgil. She worked through all the math books she found in her father’s library eventually moving on to differential calculus.

The École Polytechnique opened in 1794, when Sophie was 18. Because she was a woman, she couldn’t attend lectures, but she borrowed lecture notes from friends. She also began to submit her work to Joseph Lagrange under the name Monsieur Le Blanc. When Lagrange found out her true identity, he supported her and encouraged her to correspond with other mathematicians.

Historic building of the École Polytechnique by Juan Antonio Cordero (source)

Historic building of the École Polytechnique by Juan Antonio Cordero (source)

Probably the most famous and accomplished mathematician with whom Sophie corresponded was Karl Friedrich Gauss, considered by many to be the “greatest mathematician since antiquity.” Again, she chose to use the name M. Le Blanc and Gauss was impressed with her work in number theory. They corresponded for several years and then Sophie became concerned with Gauss’s safety. He lived in a German town which was soon to be occupied by French troops. Knowing his devotion to mathematics and thinking of Archimedes, she contacted a family friend in the French army and asked him to ensure Gauss’s safety. He did, but Gauss was confused because he didn’t know Sophie Germain by her real name.

Karl Friedrich Gauss c. 1887 by Gottlieb Biermann (source)

Karl Friedrich Gauss c. 1887 by Gottlieb Biermann (source)

The confusion was soon sorted out via correspondence, and much to Sophie’s pleasure and surprise, Gauss was delighted. “How can I describe my astonishment and admiration on seeing my esteemed correspondent M LeBlanc metamorphosed into this celebrated person. . . when a woman, because of her sex, our customs and prejudices, encounters infinitely more obstacles than men in familiarising herself with knotty problems, yet overcomes these fetters and penetrates that which is most hidden, she doubtless has the most noble courage, extraordinary talent, and superior genius.” (emphasis mine)

Sophie contributed significantly to number theory including the foundation 20th century mathematicians would build on in attempting to solve Fermat’s Last Theorem, but she also became interested in physics. In 1808, Ernst Chaldni gave a demonstration before the Paris Academy of Sciences on vibrating surfaces. The experimental results were intriguing and caught the attention of Napoléon. He convinced the Academy to run a contest to “give the mathematical theory of the vibration of an elastic surface and to compare the theory to experimental evidence.” Sophie decided to enter.

One of Sophie’s challenges was her lack of rigor in her mathematics, probably due to her lack of formal education in the field. This was part of the problem that caused the rejection of her submission to the contest in 1811. But Sophie didn’t give up. The contest was extended and Sophie submitted another paper in 1813. This time she was awarded an honorable mention, although there were still problems with her calculations.

Finally, in 1816, Sophie submitted a paper under her own name which won the prize. She was the first woman to win a prize from the Academy, but was still unable to attend its sessions. (The only women admitted were the wives of the members!) However, now she was allowed to attend lectures at the École Polytechnique. Sophie continued her work on elasticity, publishing her results in 1821 and a refined version in 1826.

Although Sophie’s work was always affected by her lack of formal education, she was seen  as ingenious and earned the respect of many of her colleagues. Gauss was sufficiently impressed to recommend to the University of Göttingen that she be awarded an honorary degree. Sadly, she died before this could happen.

In 1829, Sophie learned that she had breast cancer. Although some of her philosophical works were published posthumously, she ironically finished her last mathematical publication to the sounds of the Second French Revolution in the summer of 1830. On June 27, 1831, Sophie Germain died at her home in Paris.

Sophie Germain's headstone, photo by Miek Messerschmidt (source)

Sophie Germain’s headstone, photo by Miek Messerschmidt (source)

Read about other Famous Women Mathematicians and Scientists.

Celebrating Women in Mathematics and Science by The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM)
“Sophie Germain” by Mary Gray in Complexities: Women in Mathematics, ed. Bettye Anne Case and Anne M. Leggett
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans
Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century : a Biographical Dictionary with Annotated Bibliography by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie