New Biography by Institute’s Library Director Unveils Life and Legacy of Unknown Woman Scientist

Michelle DiMeo’s ‘Lady Ranelagh: The Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister’ tells the compelling story of a forgotten 17th-century thinker.

June 18, 2021

The Science History Institute is proud to announce the release of Lady Ranelagh: The Incomparable Life of Robert Boyle’s Sister, a new biography by Michelle DiMeo, the Arnold Thackray Director of the Othmer Library. Part of the Institute’s Synthesis book series, Lady Ranelagh offers a renewed view and understanding of the life and limits of even the most advantaged and intelligent women of the 17th century.

Born in Ireland in 1615, Katherine Jones (nee Boyle)—later known as Lady Ranelagh—was destined to become a shadow in history. Despite having no formal schooling, she became a central figure in the politics, religion, science, and medicine of her day. She was a mentor to her younger brother, Robert Boyle, a noted scientist who is considered the “father of chemistry.” Lady Ranelagh’s story is gathered from the papers of her male relatives and associates who saved or copied her letters, treatises, and medical recipes; 17th-century women typically did not publish their works or save their writings for future generations.

“The hardest part of reconstructing Lady Ranelagh’s life from the fragments was that most contemporaries didn’t use her name,” notes DiMeo. “Many letters simply referred to her as ‘my Lady’ and contextual evidence from her biography was needed to identify these as reference to her. Ironically, the fact that she was so well known in her own time has made it a challenge for historians to recreate her life today.”

DiMeo started writing the book proposal in 2014 while she was an Allington Fellow at the Science History Institute. She scoured archives from four countries and relied on the Othmer Library’s modern editions of Robert Boyle’s complete works and correspondence. Lady Ranelagh includes two images from the Institute’s collections: a portrait of Boyle that hangs in our museum and a page from a rare book.

In her review for Nature, the leading international journal of science, Georgina Ferry writes: “Now, Michelle DiMeo has produced a portrait of another influential female thinker who has been hiding in plain sight—as a footnote in the story of her more famous brother, chemist and Royal Society co-founder Robert Boyle. DiMeo reveals Katherine Jones, Lady Ranelagh, as central to political, religious, philosophical, and medical discussions, yet destined to be forgotten because she obeyed the convention that women should not put their thoughts into print. DiMeo has used her archival skills to trawl the papers of Ranelagh’s mostly male contemporaries to uncover her role as a public intellectual.”

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