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Corner Brook authors lecturing about chemistry in British girls’ schools

Geoff and Marelene Raynor-Canham pose for a photo before speaking at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London.
Geoff and Marelene Raynor-Canham pose for a photo before speaking at the Royal Society of Chemistry in London.

Weaving amongst the dusty counters and boxes, Geoff and Marelene Rayner-Canham knew they had made an incredible discovery.

n the attic of an old British girls school, they had uncovered a forgotten chemistry lab from the 1890s.

The attic was filled with fume hoods, gas taps, dozens of forgotten boxes and mountains of yellowed files.

This discovery, and the many that followed, culminated in their book, “A Chemical Passion: The forgotten story of chemistry at British independent girls’ schools, 1820s-1930s”.

The authors will be lecturing next Wednesday, April 26, at Grenfell Campus, Memorial University.

Geoff Rayner-Canham, a professor at the Grenfell Campus, said the book came as a result of another project the couple worked on.

“Originally, the American Chemical Society wanted an overview about the forgotten women of science,” he said. “We came across so many female British chemists.”

They quickly started visiting independent girls schools to explore the trend.

“They all had these beautiful magazines going back to the 1880s. In it, there were these accounts of girls talking about their love of chemistry. There were short stories, poems, all about chemistry. It was a total surprise because this had never been documented before.”

For their work, the pair were invited to address the Royal Society of Chemistry in London, England.

“One incredible thing is that all of this had been forgotten, including by the girls schools themselves,” Rayner-Canham said.

The authors said they hope that people come away from Wednesday’s lecture with a sense of energy and wonder.

“I think that the thing that comes through again and again is enthusiasm. (Chemistry) isn’t something the girls were forced to do. It was about the love of learning,” said Rayner-Canham.

Rayner-Canham said having a chemistry lab was a requirement for any good independent girls school in Great Britain.

“At each school we’d find something exciting.”

In particular, Rayner-Canham said he remembers finding an old timetable.

“It was thrilling,” he said of the whole experience. “Marlene is the researcher and loves digging into the archives. You’d never know what you’d find.”



A girl’s chemistry lab located above stables in Llandaff, Wales.

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