It is misleading to call people scientists before the early nineteenth century. The word was not even invented until 1833, and familiar scientific disciplines such as biology, geology and psychology simply did not exist. ‘Scientist’ was coined as an umbrella term to give experimental investigators a common identity that would justify their activities and consolidate their status. But it was slow to catch on – even Charles Darwin (died 1882) never called himself a scientist – and in Britain was not in common use until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Before science became professionalised during the nineteenth century, women could become involved in research projects carried out at home. Many of them excelled at illustrating, classifying, translating and editing, although their contributions were rarely acknowledged. Once university education became available to them, women could in principle follow a scientific career, although it was only towards the end of the twentieth century that they enjoyed opportunities approaching those of men. There are still relatively few women at the top of career ladders.