Around 1800, Margaret Bryan, an English schoolteacher, wrote several highly regarded textbooks on astronomy and physics for young women. While Brian corresponded with some of the most famous astronomers and mathematicians of her time, relatively little has been known about her thus far.
New research by Gregory Girolami, the William and Janet LeCan Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, has revealed previously unknown details about the background of this enigmatic researcher and his family. Girolami shared his findings in a paper published in Notes and Records: Journal of the Royal Society for the History of Science.
Despite Brian’s published work and her efforts to educate young women She has long been appreciated, and now for the first time, Brian — along with her family — is beginning to emerge from the dark shadows that have shrouded her for more than two centuries.”
Girolami’s research stemmed from his interest in the history of science—and scientists in particular. His wife, Vera Maines, who is also a chemist, shares his interest.
“When I began my investigation,” he said, “Margaret Bryan was just this blade.” “She was known to write these textbooks, have two daughters and run a boarding school, but that was about it. I love spy challenges of this sort, so I decided to try and find out more about her life.”
Key facts about her seemed lost to history, such as her birth and death dates, her maiden name, and the names of her family members. Although the frontispiece of her first book, A Brief System of Astronomy, a textbook for young girls, included an engraved portrait of the author and her daughters, the names of the latter were not disclosed.
Similarly, while the book’s introduction indicated that Brian was a widow at the time of publication in 1797, her husband’s name was never known, Girolami said.
Bryan’s other works included the physics textbook Lectures on Natural Philosophy, published in 1806; a smaller volume, “Astronomical and Geographical Chapter Book for Schools”, in 1815; and a revised version of the educational board game “Science in Mathematical or the Pleasures of Astronomy” in 1804.
“Margaret Bryan’s Astronomy Book is very technical and comprehensive, and includes some of the most recent discoveries and concepts of astronomy as a science,” said Girolami. “Most women at that time did not have a good education. Wealthy families were well educated in literature, languages, music, and domestic arts, but it was not uncommon for them to learn much about the sciences.”
Noting that several people with the surname Nottidge—many of whom are also listed as residents of the village of Bocking—were among the subscribers of Bryan’s books, Girolami began his research there, assuming that these individuals were possible relatives.
Combing through online genealogical databases and other sources, he found information about the Nottedges, a prosperous family of wool merchants who ran mills in several towns north-east of London.
Digging deeper, Girolami found that a family member, Thomas Notridge, wrote a will in 1794 that not only mentioned Brian, but revealed the names of her two daughters – Anne Marian and Maria. Unfortunately, the will did not indicate how the families should be related.
While investigating the family tree of Anne Wool, wife of Thomas Notridge, Girolamy found that in 1768 her father, James Wool, had left wills to his three grandchildren – Oswald, James and Margaret Haverkam.
Girolami said he has proved definitively through his research that Haverkam was Brian’s maiden name.
Although Brian’s date of birth could not be determined, baptismal records indicated that she was baptized—likely an infant but possibly at the age of two—in October 1759, providing at least a general time frame of when she was born, Girolami said.
Digging further, Girolami also discovered the name of Bryan’s husband – William Bryan, whom she married on 12 July 1783 in London. The births of Anne-Marian and Maria followed, Girolamy said, probably in 1784 and 1786 respectively.
The date and place of Brian’s death remain unknown, complicated by her common name and the obscurity of many general and church records. However, Girolami said that the notification of the death of “the Lady Margaret Bryan, 79 years old”, on 30 March 1836, at Fortress Terrace, Kentish Town, London, is probable fit.
The timing of that death is related to another source – the will of a lawyer named Thomas Barnard Pinkett, for whom Brian lovingly inscribed the first editions of her two major books.
Although Pinkett’s will gave no explanation as to the nature of his relationship with Brian, Girolamy said it established that Brian and her eldest daughter, Anne Marian, had already died when Pinkett signed the will on December 1, 1837, leaving “50 pounds sterling”. To the surviving daughter, Maria.
With so many questions about Brian’s life and death left unanswered, Girolami said he hopes his research will lead to more discoveries about her, including how much he cared for her. astronomy He was disturbed and nurtured to an extraordinary level during an era when female scholars were few.
Gregory S. Notes and Records: Journal of the Royal Society for the History of Science (2023). DOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2022.0052
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
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