Research reveals details about the mysterious author of early astronomy textbooks

The study uncovered previously unknown details about this enigmatic scholar's background and family.

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Gregory Girolami, the William and Janet Lycan Professor of Chemistry at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has discovered previously undisclosed details concerning Margaret Bryan, an English schoolmistress who published numerous well-regarded astronomy and physics textbooks for young women around 1800. His research was inspired by his interest in the history of science, particularly women scientists, and his wife, Vera Mainz, a chemist, shared his interest.

He discovered basic facts about her life, such as her birth and death dates, maiden name, and the names of her family members, which had been lost to history for the past 200 years. He finally discovered their identities, Ann Marian and Maria, thanks to a relative’s bequest and a watercolor portrait of Margaret Bryan with her daughters.

He wrote, “Although Bryan’s published work and her efforts to educate young women have long been appreciated, now, for the first time, Bryan the person – along with her family – begins to emerge from the dark shadows in which she has been shrouded for over two centuries,” 

He said, “When I started my investigation, Margaret Bryan was just this cipher. It was known that she wrote these textbooks, had two daughters, and ran a boarding school, but that was about it. I like sleuthing challenges of this sort, so I decided I would try to find out more about her life.”

Basic information about her, such as her birth and death dates, maiden name, and family members’ names, appeared lost to history. Although the frontispiece of her first book, “A Compendious System of Astronomy,” a textbook for young girls, had an engraved portrait of the author and her daughters, the latter’s names were not disclosed.

According to Girolami, similarly, while the prologue claimed that Bryan was a widow at the time of publication in 1797, the identity of her husband has never been revealed. 

Girolami said, “Margaret Bryan’s astronomy book is very technical and comprehensive, and it includes some of the latest discoveries and understandings of astronomy as a science. Most women at that time did not get a good education. Those in wealthy families were well-educated in literature, languages, music, and household arts. However, it was not common for them to learn much about science.”

Margaret Bryan published “Lectures on Natural Philosophy” in 1806 and the physics textbook “Astronomical and Geographical Class Book for Schools” in 1815, as well as a revised edition of an educational board game, “Science in Sport or The Pleasures of Astronomy” in 1804.

Gregory Girolami discovered that several persons with the surname Nottidge were among the subscribers to Bryan’s books, many of whom were also listed as residents of the village of Bocking. He concluded that these people were likely relatives. 

He discovered information about the Nottidges, a prominent family of wool merchants who operated mills in numerous places northeast of London. He found that one of the family members, Thomas Nottidge, signed a will in 1794 that included Bryan and mentioned Bryan’s mother.

Girolami discovered in the family tree of Thomas Nottidge’s wife, Ann Wall, that her father, James Wall, gave bequests to his three grandkids, Oswald, James, and Margaret Haverkam, in 1768.

Girolami discovered that Haverkam was Bryan’s maiden name and that baptismal records indicated she was christened in October 1759. He also found the name of her husband, William Bryan, and the births of Ann Marian and Maria in 1784 and 1786.

Margaret Bryan’s death is unknown, but a notice of her death on March 30, 1836, in Fortess Terrace, Kentish Town, London, is a possible fit. The timing of that death correlates with the will of an attorney named Thomas Barnard Pinkett, to whom Bryan lovingly inscribed the first editions of her two major books. Girolami also unearthed Bryan’s marriage certificate, which revealed her husband’s name, William Bryan.

Pinkett’s will provided no clarity on the nature of his and Bryan’s relationship. However, it established that Bryan and her older daughter, Ann Marian, were already deceased when Pinkett signed the will on December 1, 1837, leaving “50 pounds sterling” to the surviving daughter, Maria.

Journal Reference:

  1. Gregory S. Girolami, Margaret Bryan: Newly Discovered Biographical Information about the Author of A Compendious System of Astronomy (1797), Notes and Records: the Royal Society Journal of the History of ScienceDOI: 10.1098/rsnr.2022.0052

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