Sarah Dry

What did Catherine really think?


It is a perennial problem, the scarcity of women in the history of science.

Some responsibility lies in the present, with historians who may not dig hard enough for the remoter bits of information about women—often the sisters, daughters and wives of more famous men—who had the chance to do something scientific.

But while historians can work harder to pull stories from the past, they cannot create history where there has been none.

And the word chance in my second sentence really is the right word, combining a sense of opportunity with good fortune. It has always taken a fair amount of plain old luck for a woman to be in a position to think about science in a meaningful way. Education, access, and time have always been (and still remain!) hard to align in meaningful quantities.

And so it is not surprising that there are few women in the story of the Newton papers. The most prominent by far is Catherine Barton, the daughter of Newton’s half-sister Hannah, who lived with him in London for many years, running his household and eventually marrying the man who would become Newton’s successor at the Mint, John Conduitt. Catherine was both a prominent niece and wife and therefore doubly ‘lucky’, if that’s the word, in her social position.

She was by all accounts a vital, intelligent woman with strong ideas about her famous half-uncle. She and her husband fought to ensure that Newton was remembered not only as a genius but as a pious Christian. Her insistence on maintaining his image as a man of true religion after his death raises the interesting question of how much she knew of what Newton really believed. (What Newton really believed was radical stuff, demoting Christ from full equality with God and thus not for the faint of heart.)

We don’t know much, but one thing we do know is that Catherine hoped that a selection of Newton’s private religious writings would be published. It’s a tantalizing clue that perhaps Catherine did know what Newton really believed and hoped the world would come to know it too. On the other hand, it is possible that she had no idea what the papers contained, or else she might never have contemplated making them public. Catherine died in 1739 without leaving any more clues. She remains a cipher, her true beliefs difficult to fathom from the few sources that remain. Truth be told, this mystery makes her more, not less, interesting to me as I try to imagine her across the centuries that separate us.

The religious papers she hoped to share with the world? They ended up in the hands of a conservative Anglican who kept them out of sight, where they have remained until now.

In my next post, the other prominent woman in this story: Grace Babson, who created  the largest collection of Newton materials in the Western material while married to a man who thought gravity was evil.