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Bryan, Margaretlocked

(fl. 1795–1816)
  • Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

Margaret Bryan (fl. 1795–1816)

by William Nutter, pubd 1797 (after Samuel Shelley, 1797) [with her daughters]

Bryan, Margaret (fl. 1795–1816), educator and writer on natural philosophy, was a noted early example of a woman teaching natural science to other women. Little is known about her life; such information as is available comes from her own writings. She was married to a Mr Bryan, and had two daughters. She ran a boarding-school for girls at Blackheath from 1795 to 1806, opened a school in London in 1815, and moved to Margate in 1816, where she also ran a school. The curriculum in her schools differed from that of most peer institutions by including mathematics and science as suitable subjects for girls.

In 1797 Margaret Bryan published her early lecture notes as A Compendious System of Astronomy. In the preface to this book she denied demonstrating any originality, proclaiming that the subject had already been extensively considered 'by the ablest mathematicians and by philosophers of the most penetrating genius' (Bryan, 1799, vii). She explained that her goal was to make obscure subjects clear and, continuing in an apologetic tone, stated that if she had failed 'through the imbecility of my judgment, I hope the motive may be my apology'. Her tone reveals her awareness that she was doing something very unusual, and she noted that her lectures were not written for publication but for her students. Explaining that she had published these notes at the insistence of friends, she expected censure from those with 'false and vulgar' prejudices but expected fair treatment by those who acknowledged 'truth, although enfeebled by female attire'.

Margaret Bryan succeeded in obtaining the endorsement of Charles Hutton, acknowledged leader of the London based philomaths, who noted his pleasure in finding 'that even the learned and more difficult sciences are … beginning to be successfully cultivated by the extraordinary and elegant talents of the female writers of the present day' (Bryan, 1799, xiii). Hutton stated that he was honoured to support Bryan's work, and this praise encouraged her to publish her Lectures on Natural Philosophy (1806), a work consisting of thirteen lectures on hydrostatics, optics, pneumatics, and acoustics. In this work, she was anxious to impress upon her students the mutual relationship between religion and science as expressed by William Paley in his Natural Theology. Since her first book had received such good reviews, she was more confident and less apologetic in this work. In 1815 she published An Astronomical and Geographical Class Book for Schools. Her work was often confused with that of Jane Marcet, who sometimes published anonymously. In the eighth London edition of the anonymous Conversations on Chemistry, the 'Advertisement' credits Bryan as author of the book later acknowledged to be by Marcet. Similar misattributions are found in Robert Watt's Bibliotheca Britannica and in the Biographical Dictionary of Living Authors (1916).

Though her work was a very public intrusion into a male sphere, Bryan sought rhetorically to accommodate her scientific work to her domestic role. In her Lectures on Natural Philosophy, she wrote that she was pleased with her domestic responsibilities and saw her teaching as an extension of her role as 'Parent and Preceptress' (Address to my pupils, Lectures on Natural Philosophy). Earlier in her first book, feeling the need to explain why she might appear to be overstepping the line of propriety and venturing into what might be considered the public sphere, she reasoned that to do so was to engage in responsible motherhood. Although this approach probably did not represent a deliberate strategy, it nevertheless served as a means to open scientific education to girls. Her works emphasized her femininity; on the frontispieces of her books were portraits of herself and her two daughters. This encouraged the Dictionary of National Biography biographer to describe her as 'beautiful and talented'. It is not known when Margaret Bryan died; her move to Margate in 1816 was her last recorded action.


  • M. Bryan, A compendious system of astronomy, 2nd edn (1799)
  • M. Bryan, Lectures on natural philosophy: the result of many years’ practical experience of the facts elucidated (1806)
  • M. Benjamin, ‘Elbow room: women writers on science, 1790–1840’, Science and sensibility: gender and scientific enquiry, 1780–1945, ed. M. Benjamin (1991), 27–59
  • E. C. Krupp, ‘Astronomical musings’, Griffith Observer, 39 (1975), 8–18
  • N. A. Hans, New trends in education in the eighteenth century (1951)


  • J. Heath, stipple (after T. Kearsley), BM, NPG; repro. in Bryan, Lectures on natural philosophy
  • T. Kearsley, portrait, repro. in Bryan, Lectures on natural philosophy, frontispiece
  • W. Nutter, group portrait, stipple (after S. Shelley, 1797), BM, NPG; repro. in Bryan, Compendious system of astronomy (1797) [see illus.]
  • S. Shelley, group portrait, repro. in Bryan, Compendious system of astronomy, frontispiece
, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)
R. Watt, , 4 vols. (1824); repr. (1963), (1964), (1965), (1990), (1995)