Gaskell House Blogs

Scientists Elizabeth Gaskell Knew

8th December 2022
in blog, People

The following is a list of scientists1 who are known to have been in contact with Elizabeth Gaskell, or who probably had some contact with her after she moved to Manchester in 1832. Those who had most importance to Elizabeth are marked with an asterisk.

Some of those listed did great things after Elizabeth died in 1865 but they are only listed here for what they did when she was alive. It is almost certain that she would also have met scientists before moving to Manchester, for example in Newcastle and Edinburgh, but we can only guess who they were2.

Individuals with some other scientific connection whom Elizabeth may have encountered are listed as ‘others’. End-notes to the text appear at the bottom of the blog.


*George James Allman (1812-1898) Irishman who served as Emeritus Professor of Natural History at Edinburgh University. Married to Elizabeth’s friend Louisa Shaen. Elizabeth stayed with him and liked him very much, asking Charles Eliot Norton to secure a copy of a bird book from America which she knew Allman could not obtain in Britain.

Joseph Baxendell (1815-1887) Manchester meteorologist and astronomer and Secretary of the Lit. & Phil. from 1861 for twenty-six years. One of the last of the ‘amateur’ scientists in the city.

Lydia Ernestine Becker (1827-1890) Author of Botany for Beginners (1864), she corresponded with Darwin, but it is not clear whether she ever met Elizabeth. Founded the Manchester Ladies’ Literary Society (1867) and was Secretary of the Manchester National Society for Women’s Suffrage from 1867. Her portrait is in Manchester Art Gallery.

Edward Binney (1812-1882) Manchester solicitor and geologist and mainstay of the Manchester Geological Society in the mid-nineteenth century. James Joule’s closest scientific friend. (See Secord 2005).

*Benjamin Brodie (1817-1880) Studied with Liebig (see ‘other’ list below) at Giessen. Waynflete Professor of Chemistry at Oxford and expert on waxes. In 1866 he suggested a new way of studying chemistry, being sceptical of Dalton’s atomic theory. Sat next to T. H. Huxley at the famous ‘monkey debate’ at the 1860 meeting of the British Association in Oxford. Elizabeth knew the Brodie family, especially Benjamin’s wife Philo, and stayed with them several times when visiting Oxford.

Robert Bunsen (1811-1899) Important Heidelberg chemist who worked with Lyon Playfair in Manchester. Discovered caesium and rubidium. Probably brother of Christian Bunsen, the Prussian Ambassador, who knew Elizabeth. Bunsen Street is presumably named after one of them.

*William Benjamin Carpenter (1813-1885) Unitarian physiologist and friend of the Gaskells. His father Lant was minister in Bristol. One of his brothers Philip Pearsall was a well-known conchologist and Presbyterian minister at Cairo Street in Warrington. His sister Mary founded the Ragged Schools and there are other family links to the Gaskells. His sister Susan married William’s brother Robert and he also knew William’s sister Ann and her husband William Robson. His sons, especially Philip Herbert, helped him in marine biology in the 1860s and 1870s and some of his grandsons were well-known biologists. Carpenter was a leading campaigner for temperance and he believed that people could change their behaviour if their circumstances were changed. The Gaskells borrowed his books on this and other subjects, and he sometimes stayed with them when lecturing in the Manchester, perhaps for example during the cotton famine of 1862, when he and others like Huxley and John Tyndall addressed the unemployed workers. He studied medicine, but became Fullerian Lecturer at the Royal Institution and rose to become the country’s leading physiologist and Registrar of University College London, where he helped to establish BSc as a new type of university degree. He was the driving force behind the scientific voyage of H.M.S. Challenger, but that was after Elizabeth died. He was also editor of Robert Chambers’ Vestiges (see below) and tutor to Ada Lovelace’s children. The Gaskells certainly read some of his publications, including perhaps his Principles of Comparative Physiology (1839). In this book he popularized Karl von Baer’s studies of the embryology of the chick, which gave Darwin crucial evidence for his theory of evolution and he was the first to use the word ‘evolution’ in its modern sense. His most controversial book was Principles of Human Physiology (1855), which was considered pornographic in some quarters because it dealt with the details of reproduction (see Dawson 2009). In 1859 Darwin sent him an advance copy of the Origin of Species and he was one of the first to write a favourable review of the book. He died from burns while doing a chemical experiment. (See Lidwell-Durnin 2020).

Edwin Chadwick (1800-1890) Statistician whose Report on the Sanitary Conditions of the Labouring Population of Great Britain (1842) was highly influential in drawing attention to the terrible living conditions in Manchester. It is likely that Elizabeth read this report when writing Mary Barton and/or North and South.

*Robert Chambers (1802-1871) Edinburgh-based prolific publisher and famous as the anonymous author of Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). This book sold in large numbers and was the first in English to promote the theory of evolution. Its authorship was one of the best kept secrets in literary history (see Secord 2000 for a detailed study of the book). Elizabeth stayed with him twice, in 1855 and 1859.

Robert Bellamy Clifton (1836-1921) First Professor of Natural Philosophy (i.e. physics) at Owens College, from 1860 to 1865.

Frederick Crace-Calvert (1819-1873) French-trained Manchester-based chemist, who published prolifically and made significant contributions to the development of disinfectants and to the combatting of food adulteration. For some reason he did not play a major role in Manchester institutions.

John Dalton (1766-1844) Born in Cumberland of a humble Quaker family, but when he died his funeral procession in Manchester was over a mile long. Meteorologist and founder of the modern atomic theory and the most famous Manchester scientist. See his A New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808). Also studied gases and described ‘daltonism’ (colour blindness). His entry in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography runs to 11 pages and his statue is in Manchester Town Hall (see engraving in The Cambridge History of Science by J Stephenson, presumably the same person who painted Elizabeth in 1832?). He was given free membership of the Portico Library in exchange for looking after the clock and weather vane. There are many memorials to him in Manchester, all summarized in Sumner (2009). They include the blue plaque at 36 George Street (the original home of the Lit. & Phil., behind the Portico Library) the road named after him and both the mural of him by Ford Maddox Brown and the statue in the Town Hall. There is also information about him in the entrance to the Chemistry Building on Brunswick Square. Sadly, the Luftwaffe’s ‘Christmas Blitz’ of 1940 destroyed the Lit. & Phil’s building which housed his archives.

*Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Probably the most influential scientist who ever lived. Born in Shrewsbury, grandson of the evolutionist Erasmus Darwin and of the potter Josiah Wedgwood (see ‘other’ list below). Josiah’s sister’s niece Ann married Swinton Holland and was therefore Elizabeth’s aunt. Darwin studied medicine at Edinburgh, then took an ordinary degree at Cambridge, where he was befriended by the leading scientists and this led to his becoming naturalist to the voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836). On the voyage he became convinced that species could be modified to the extent that they gave birth to new species. Back in England he searched for an explanation of this modification and discovered his principle of natural selection in 1838 and worked this up in his private notebooks while publishing his other results from the voyage. From 1846 to 1854 he developed his theory while studying barnacles, work for which he was awarded the highest scientific honours. From 1854 he concentrated on writing his book an abstract of which was eventually published on 24 November 1859 as The Origin of Species which is certainly one of the most important books ever published. He was plagued by ill health, but continued to publish on evolution for the rest of his life, notably in his Descent of Man (1871) and The Expression of the Emotions (1872) in the latter of which he quoted on p.158 from Mary Barton (Penguin edition, p.105). He also wrote on many other subjects and his correspondence (15,000 letters) has now all been published. He and his family knew the Gaskells well and Elizabeth based Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters on him (see her letter L732 to George Smith of May 1864). This was Darwin’s favourite novel and the last one read to him before he died.

Francis Egerton (1800-1857) First Earl of Ellesmere and amateur naturalist. His father inherited the wealth of Francis Egerton, the 3rd Duke of Bridgewater who built the Bridgewater Canal – the first of its kind in the world – and is commemorated in many place names in Manchester. Francis’s father died within a year and the estate including Tatton Park passed to him. Elizabeth knew the family and it seems very likely that the Cumnors in Wives and Daughters were based on them. Francis was Chairman of the board of the Ship Canal Company, but that was a generation after Elizabeth’s death. His cousin (?) Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater (1756-1829) left £8 for the publication of the famous Bridgewater Treatises on natural theology.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American Unitarian transcendental philosopher and naturalist. The Pickering Complete Works of Elizabeth Gaskell accept that Elizabeth wrote the anonymous review of his famous Manchester lectures of 1847. Almost certainly the first American to speak in favour of Darwin’s theory of evolution (Ohio, December 1859).

*William Fairbairn (1789-1875) Manchester engineer and inventor who made major improvements to cotton mill machines around 1840 and established an important factory. He worked with Eaton Hodgkinson (see below) and set up the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute. He and his wife lived at Montague Terrace on the Bury New Road and, like James Nasmyth and his wife, often visited the Gaskells. He was a Unitarian and wrote to Elizabeth about North and South, and she wrote several letters to him in the 1850s. There is a blue plaque for him in the Arndale Centre and there is information about him in the Chemistry Building. He was President of the British Association when it met in Manchester in 1861. (For general background on Fairbairn and Nasmyth see Musson and Robinson 1969, ch. 15).

Edward Frankland (1825-1899) Trained under Liebig and Bunsen, he was the first Professor of Chemistry at Owens College from its foundation in 1851 until 1857.  In 1852 he established the theory of chemical valence and was one of the founders of organometallic chemistry. One of the first of the ‘academic’ scientists in Manchester, he is featured on a Manchester University display outside the Chemistry Department (2022).

*Isidore Geoffroy St Hilaire (1805-1861) Professor of zoology at the Sorbonne in Paris from 1850. He met Elizabeth and Meta at his house in 1855, the year his wife died. He was son of the great Étienne, author of Philosophie Anatomique (1822) who is a hero to Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters and is famous for his 1830 debate with Georges Cuvier(see ‘other’ list below). Like Elizabeth, he died at the age of 55.

Joseph Henry Gilbert (1817-1901) Manchester-based calico3 chemist who trained under Liebig (see ‘other’ list below) and who also did important work on agricultural chemistry.

William Rathbone Greg (1809-1881) Son of Samuel Greg of Quarry Bank Mill where use was made of Fairbairn’s engineering improvements. Exact contemporary of Charles Darwin at Edinburgh University 1825-1827 and both were members of the Plinian Society where natural science was discussed. See Burton (2022). A close friend of the Gaskells.

James Gully (1808-1883) Malvern-based physician who provided the water cure to many eminent Victorians. Treated Darwin and his daughter Annie (who died aged 10) and Meta Gaskell.

James Heywood (1810-1897) Manchester-based statistician and campaigner for free libraries and was prominent in Manchester institutions. Reported on conditions in the city.

Eaton Hodgkinson (1789-1861) Manchester engineer who pioneered the use of mathematics in design and worked with Fairbairn to create a new type of cast-iron beam for railway bridges, such as the one built to take the Liverpool-Manchester line over Water Street in Castlefield. He was the first Professor of Mechanical Engineering at University College London from 1847.

*Henry Holland (1788-1873) Cheshire-based son of Mary Willets and Peter Holland, so Darwin’s second cousin and Elizabeth’s cousin. Physician to Queen Victoria and considered kind to patients in his extended family. Wrote several scientific books and an important paper on the germ-theory of disease. Also, had discussions about human evolution with Darwin and was an important general supporter of Darwin’s theory.

*Peter Holland (1766-1855) Doctor and Elizabeth’s uncle who encouraged her to accompany him on his rounds and may have been the model for Mr Gibson in Wives and Daughters. He was based in Knutsford and was well known as a pioneer of occupational medicine. It is likely that he attended to the wounded following the Peterloo massacre (See Ross 2015). It is not clear at the time of writing if he is the same as the ‘P H Holland Manchester surgeon’ referred to by Kargon (1977).

Edward Holme (1770-1847) Cultural leader and Manchester scientist in the 1840s, although all his collections went to University College London. Founder and President of the Portico Library for twenty-six years and founder of the Manchester Natural History Society.

Leonard Horner (1785-1864) Scottish geologist and educational reformer who was an important friend of Darwin and knew his brother Erasmus and Elizabeth Gaskell. He was Charles Lyell’s father-in-law and his daughter Katherine (1817-1915) was an expert on ferns.

Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-1895) Brilliant zoologist and perhaps the greatest champion of Darwin’s theory of evolution, although he never accepted natural selection as the explanation. Although it is not clear if he ever met Elizabeth, it seems likely as he lectured in Manchester alongside her friend William Carpenter. Famously, he claimed to have demolished Samuel Wilberforce’s ridiculing of Darwin at the Oxford BA meeting in 1860, where he sat next to Elizabeth’s friend Benjamin Brodie.

*Henry Fleeming Jenkin (1833-1885) Edinburgh engineer who invented the cable car and did important work on deep-sea cables. Also wrote a severe review of the fourth edition of the Origin of Species which forced Darwin to revise the fifth edition in 1869. He married Annie Austin and visited the Gaskells on many occasions, but was disappointed to discover late on that visiting on Saturdays meant not seeing William because that was sermon-writing day (see Brill 1984)!

James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) Salford-born brewer who in his early career had very little spare time for his experiments, although his father provided him with space and laboratory equipment. By diligence and hard work, partly the result of his strong religious faith, he became an expert on thermodynamics in the 1840s. He is now regarded as one the great theoretical physicists, although some of his early papers created very little interest outside Manchester. He showed that heat can become other forms of energy4 and he discovered a way to measure the mechanical equivalent of heat and published the first calculation of the velocity of a gas molecule (1851). The ‘Joule’ is the internationally recognized unit of energy. His statue is in Manchester Town Hall and Sumnor (2016) has a picture of the fine oil portrait by John Collier.

*James Phillips Kay-Shuttleworth (1804-1877) Physician who inherited the Shuttleworth estates at Gawthorpe in Lancashire. Darwin knew him at the Royal Medical Society in Edinburgh in the 1820s. He reported on the 1832 Manchester cholera outbreak and gave Elizabeth medical advice. She was also friends with his wife Lady Kay-Shuttleworth.

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) Clergyman and Christian Socialist and writer who was very enthusiastic about Mary Barton. His book Glaucus was one of the best books about seashore life, along with G H Lewes’s books (see below). Professor of Modern History at Cambridge and extremely well-connected, being a friend of Prince Albert, Chaplain in Ordinary to the Queen and tutor of their children. Prolific author and populariser of Darwin’s work and whose Water Babies was the first ‘evolutionary’ story. Darwin sent him an advance copy of the Origin of Species and Kingsley’s reply was quoted in the 1860 second edition.

*John Leigh (1812-1888) Manchester-based surgeon and chemist who was the city’s Medical Officer from 1868. He showed that the incidence of pulmonary diseases in the Manchester area was far higher than elsewhere in the Country. He did important work to improve living conditions in the city, for example by analysing and treating coal gas to ensure it was safe and as clean as possible.

George Henry Lewes (1817-1878) Editor of the Fortnightly Review. Like Kingsley, wrote on marine biology and wrote many reviews of science books and was an influential supporter of Darwin. Lived with George Eliot/Mary Ann Evans.

Charles Lyell (1797-1875) Scottish geologist whose Principles of Geology (1830-1833) has been called the most important textbook ever published, largely for its enormous influence on the young Charles Darwin. The book went through twelve editions of which Elizabeth Gaskell’s House has a copy of the fourth volume of the 4th edition. He also published The Antiquity of Man (1863) which appears in the House sale of 1913 and the family borrowed his books on America from the Portico. He married Leonard Horner’s daughter Mary and was one of Darwin’s greatest friends. Elizabeth mentions being at the Lyells’ house in a letter to Charles Norton of October 1859.

Jane Marcet (1769-1858) London-based salonièrre of Swiss origin, well-educated in chemistry and author of Conversations on Natural Philosophy (1819), Conversations of Vegetable Physiology (1805) and a series of other books. These books inspired Michael Faraday and other scientists, but were also important for inspiring people, such as women, with little chance of making a living from it.

Alexander McDougall (1809-1899) Worked with Angus Smith to develop disinfectants which made a significant difference to public health in Manchester (see also Crace-Calvert).

John Mercer (1791-1866) One of the most important textile chemists. Based in Manchester, he invented ‘mercerising’ for improving the quality of textiles and developed new colours, such as Chrome yellow and Prussian blue. He also made important contributions to bactericides and to improvements in fighting cholera, colour photography and education.

*James Hall Nasmyth (1802-1890) Scottish engineer and inventor of engines and machine tools in partnership with William’s cousin Holbrook Gaskell at the Bridgewater Foundry (Nasmyth, Gaskell & Co.). He invented the steam hammer in 1839. He and his wife often visited Plymouth Grove. Mr Manning, a character in Cousin Phillis, was based on him (see Uglow 1993, p.667, note 18).

Lyon Playfair (1818-1898) Influential scientist and politician who trained under Liebig (see ‘other’ list below). Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Manchester Institution where he attracted large audiences. He was also the first Chemist at the Geological Survey and worked with Robert Bunsen and James Joule. Advocated the use of gas against the Russians in the Crimean War.

Peter Mark Roget (1779-1869) English physician, inventor and lexicographer. Perfected the slide rule and his work on ‘persistence of vision’ informed the birth of cinematography. Wrote Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (1852).

Henry Enfield Roscoe (1833-1915) Trained in Heidelberg with Robert Bunsen. At age 24 he followed Frankland as Professor of Chemistry at Owens College from 1858 and did important work on vanadium. He was President of the Lit. & Phil. During the 1861 BA meeting in Manchester and organized the lectures to unemployed mill workers during the cotton famine. The Roscoe Building on Brunswick Square is named after him. (See also Uglow 1993, p. 491).

*John Ruskin (1819-1900) English art historian and Professor at Slade School of Art in Oxford. Champion of J. M. W. Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites. Keen naturalist and geologist from childhood and in 1870s/80s wrote The Deucalion (1875-1883) on geology, Love’s Meinie (1873-1881) on ornithology, and Proserpina (1875-1886) on botany. He wrote Elizabeth’s favourite book, Modern Painters (1843-1860) and taught Meta how to draw.

Carl Schorlemmer (1834-1892) German chemist and friend of Engels. He studied under Bunsen and joined Owens College in 1861. In 1862 he confirmed that carbon is tetravalent, and he became an authority on hydrocarbons.

*Henry Edward Schunck (1820-1903) Manchester analytical chemist who trained under Liebig (see ‘other’ list below). President of the Manchester Lit. & Phil. and Governor of Owens College. He made important contributions to the use of lichens for making dyestuffs and discovered Indigo blue. There is an extensive display about his work and a bronze portrait of him by John Cassidy in the entrance to the Chemistry Building. He made major financial contributions to the University for chemical research and bequeathed his Kersal Moor laboratory, which has been relocated to a site next to the Main Library as the Schunck Building. Elizabeth knew other members of his family.

Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) Yorkshire-born Cambridge geologist and one of the most important experts on the oldest fossiliferous rocks. Taught Darwin in 1831, but was an extreme critic of The Origin of Species. He worked with William Gaskell on the 1842 Manchester meeting of the British Association.

*Robert Angus Smith (1817-1884) Manchester-based Scottish expert on pollution and sanitary chemistry who discovered ‘acid rain’. He contributed in many ways to improving conditions in Manchester, for example by his development with Alexander McDougall of disinfectants. He trained under Liebig (see ‘other’ list below) and was President of the Lit. & Phil.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872) Scottish mathematician and science writer, including Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834) and Celestial Mechanism (1830). Friend of Henry Holland. Somerville College Oxford is named after her.

James Thomson (1779-1850) Blackburn-born industrial chemist. At his Clitheroe-based Primrose calico printworks he developed Turkey red and Indigo blue dyes. Friend of Humphry Davy and S. T. Coleridge and one of the first to inhale nitrous oxide in 1799. Employed Lyon Playfair as chemist.

William Thomson (1824-1907) Later became Lord Kelvin. Famous physicist and one of the first people to recognize James Joule’s importance. He caused a problem for Darwin in the 1870s by declaring the Earth (which he wrongly assumed had originated in a molten condition) could only be c 70,000,000 years old, far too young for Darwin’s theory of evolution to have worked. Darwin himself argued (correctly) that the Earth was at least many hundreds of millions of years old.

*William Turner (1761-1859) Unitarian minister and founder of the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society and Natural History Society. Married Jane Holland so was Elizabeth’s uncle and she spent two years living with him and his family in the 1820s.

William Whewell (1794-1866) Master of Trinity Collegeand Professor of Mineralogy at Cambridge, where he was instrumental in establishing the Natural Sciences tripos in 1848. Polymath, historian and philosopher of science, he coined many scientific words including ‘scientist’. He knew the Gaskells and may have advised Elizabeth with aspects of Wives and Daughters.

Joseph Whitworth (1803-1887) Manchester precision engineer and creator of the Whitworth tool system for screw threads and the Whitworth sniper rifle. The Whitworth Art Gallery and Christie’s Hospital were largely funded by him. His portrait is in the Whitworth Gallery and his company became Armstrong Whitworth in 1897.

William Crawford Williamson (1816-1895) Surgeon and palaeobotanist and first Curator of Manchester Natural History Society, then Professor of Natural History at Owens College (Manchester University). The Williamson Building on Oxford Road is named after him and his portrait is on display there.


Louis Agassiz (1807-1873) Swiss-American naturalist, famous for his monograph on fossil fishes5 and for his studies on glaciers which contributed to the idea that the world had recently experienced an ‘Ice Age’. He was extremely racist and maintained that the different ‘types’ of humans had been created separately (‘polygeny’) and could be ranked in quality, with Europeans naturally at the top. Although Elizabeth never met him, she knew of him principally from her friendship with Charles Eliot Norton, who was a colleague of Agassiz at Harvard University. Norton wrote to Elizabeth on 26 December 1859 that Darwin’s Origin of Species published a month previously was causing fierce controversy among his colleagues and that Agassiz was totally opposed to the theory of evolution.

James Allan (1825-1866) Manchesterbased Scottish analytical chemist. Trained under Liebig (see Liebig entry below).

Thomas Ashton (1837-1898) Unitarian who like Fairbairn attended Cross Street Chapel. He was very important in the foundation of Manchester University on Oxford Road in 1868. Unlike Owens College the University had no prohibition of female students.

Richard Buxton (1786-1865) Artisan naturalist from Prestwich. ‘The Railway and Naturalist’ pub in Prestwich is named after him and he is a possible model for Job Legh.

James Crowther (d.1847) Another possible model for Job Legh in Mary Barton (see Percy 1991).

Georges Cuvier (1769-1832) Great Parisian naturalist and founder of comparative anatomy. Famous as the ‘inventor’ of the concept of species extinction based on fossils successions and for his debate with Étienne Geoffroy St Hilaire (see entry for Isidore Geoffroy in main list). Author of several famous works and best known for his Règne Animal (1817) which was translated into English and available in both languages to Elizabeth from the Portico Library. This was the book read to Molly Gibson by Roger Hamley in Wives and Daughters.

William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929) Palaeontologist and archaeologist and expert of Ice Age cave fossils. Professor of Geology at Owens College from 1874 and Curator of the Manchester Museum from 1869. He reviewed the Origin of Species.

Rowland Detrosier (c1800-1834) Manchester-based self-taught scientist and radical. Co-founded the short-lived but popular Banksian Society and the ‘New Mechanics’ Institution in the belief that scientific knowledge gave power to the working man. (See Kargon 1977).

Robert Edleston (1819-1872) Amateur entomologist who studied the melanic variety of the peppered moth Biston betularia. In the 20th Century Bernard Kettlewell showed that the rapid increase of this variant in Manchester in Edleston’s time was due its being naturally selected by virtue of its camouflage against bird predation in a polluted atmosphere. This is today seen as a classic demonstration of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Michael Faraday (1791-1867) Whilst he had little direct involvement in Manchester science, he knew many of the scientists in the city. Fullerian Professor of Chemistry at the Royal Institution and one of Britain’s greatest Victorian scientists. He made fundamental contributions to chemistry, including the study of electrolysis and the discovery of benzene. He also suggested that light and electricity were connected and developed the electromagnetic theory which led to the development of power stations and electric motors. The ‘farad’ is the internationally recognized unit of electrical capacity.

François Huber (1750-1830) Swiss entomologist (not to be confused with his son Pierre) whose Nouvelles observations sur les Abeilles (New observations on honey bees) of 1792 brought him fame across Europe. Darwin made considerable use of Huber’s observations on the bees’ cell-making instinct in The Origin of Species. The 1808 English edition was acquired by the Portico Library so Elizabeth had access to it and it is one of the books in Wives and Daughters which Roger introduces to Molly. It is central to an argument involving all the key characters in chapter 24: ‘Mrs Gibson’s Little Dinner’.

Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) One of the most influential chemists who ever lived. At Giessen he trained many of the important young chemists attracted to his charismatic teaching style, who returned to work in the British textile industry and related fields. Many of these men were Scots who moved to Manchester for better career prospects. Liebig addressed the Liverpool meeting of the British Association in 1837 and made huge contributions to organic chemistry, discovering chloroform for use as an anaesthetic and the use of phosphates as fertilizers. He developed new uses for sewage and meat extracts and made improvements to bread baking and baby formula artificial milk.

James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) Scottish mathematician and physicist, famous for being the first to propose that electricity, magnetism and light are all aspects of the same phenomenon (electromagnetic radiation).

Mary Clarke Mohl (1793-1883) Not a scientist herself, but seems to have introduced Elizabeth to several important scientists in Paris.

Richard Owen (1804-1892) Generally regarded as Britain’s greatest Victorian anatomist and palaeontologist and author of many important books, including his Hunterian Lectures (1837) which was owned by the Gaskells. Founder of the Natural History Museum in London, he was detested by some other scientists, including Darwin and Huxley.

John Owens (1790-1846) Not a scientist, but a Manchester merchant whose bequest enabled the establishment of Owens College in 1851. Eventually this became Manchester University which merged with UMIST (which had its 1824 origins in the Mechanics’ Institution) in 2004.

Robert Peel (1750-1830) Bury-based calico-printer and one of the richest men of the Industrial Revolution. Father of Robert (see next).

Robert Peel (1788-1850) Bury-born son of Robert (see last). Prime Minister and also Chancellor and Home Secretary. Repealer of the Corn Laws and founder of the Metropolitan Police and the Conservative Party. His statue is in Piccadilly Gardens.

William Henry Perkin (1838-1907) London-based chemist who in 1856 synthesised the organic dyestuff mauveine made from aniline derived from coal tar. This synthetic mauve ‘aniline’ dye revolutionized the production of textile colours.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804) Radical unitarian minister, polymath and chemist who was inspired by William Willets, invented carbonated water and independently discovered oxygen. Eventually had to emigrate to America in 1791 after his scientific library and laboratory were destroyed by a mob opposed to his radical politics.

Thomas Henry Robinson (dates?) Purchaser of the natural history collection of John Leigh Philips (1761-1814) and co-founder of Manchester Natural History Society (Kargon 1977, p.14).

Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) Though after Elizabeth’s lifetime, this New Zealand-born physicist must be included here as his arrival to head up the Physics Department (the Rutherford Building), where he famously established the existence of the atomic nucleus in 1917, book ends this list of key Manchester scientists. By 1921 the impact he had had on Manchester was one of the main reasons that Albert Einstein chose the city as the venue for the first lecture he ever gave in Britain.

James Edward Smith (1759-1828) London botanist and key member of the Linnean Society (he purchased Linnaeus’s collections) who visited Manchester and was introduced to whoever was the model for Job Legh in Mary Barton (see Percy 1991).

George Stephenson (1781-1848) Railway engineer and founder of the Liverpool to Manchester public railway, which was the first in the world and featured in Mary Barton. He also developed the standard gauge of railways now used in most countries. His son Robert 1803-1859) continued his work on a grand scale and is regarded as one of the greatest Victorian engineers.

John Watson (dates?) Chair of the Natural History Section of the Manchester Lit. and Phil. His views on evolution are reported in the first issue of Nature (18 November 1869), now the world’s leading scientific journal.

James Watt (1736 -1819) Scottish engineer. Made many improvements to the steam engine. See his statue in Piccadilly Gardens6. His son was also called James. The ‘Watt’ is the Internationally-recognised unit of power.

The Wedgwood family. Elizabeth was related to Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) through his sister’s marriage to William Willets, whose daughter Ann married Elizabeth’s uncle Swinton Holland. Josiah was a scientific potter, who knew all the leading scientists and engineers of the early Industrial Revolution. He was also Darwin’s maternal grandfather and Josiah’s son Josiah II was the father of Darwin’s wife Emma and her brother Hensleigh. Hensleigh’s family knew the Gaskells well and his daughter Julia (‘Snow’) was a great friend of Meta and helped both Elizabeth and Darwin with their work.

Gordon Chancellor


Brill, Barbara 1984: William Gaskell 1805-1884: a portrait. Manchester Lit. and Phil. Society.

Burton, Anthony 2022: Gaskell Society Newsletter 74: 23-27.

Chancellor, Gordon [2007 ongoing] Editorial introductions of various scientific books on Darwin Online.

Gowan Dawson 2009: Darwin, Literature and Victorian respectability.  Cambridge University Press.

Henson, Louise: several relevant papers in Gaskell Journal.

Kargon, Robert H 1977: Science in Victorian Manchester. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lidwell-Durnin, John 2020: ‘William Benjamin Carpenter and the emerging science of heredity’ Journal of the History of Biology 53: 81-103.

Lightman, Bernard (ed) 2004: The Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century British scientists. Thoemmes Continuum.

Litvack, Leon 2004: ‘Outposts of Empire: scientific discovery and colonial displacement in Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters’. The Review of English Studies 55: 727-758. Important paper of Elizabeth’s use of Darwin in Wives and Daughters p.730.

Musson, A.E. and Robinson, Eric 1969: Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution. Manchester University Press.

Percy, John 1991: ‘Scientists in humble life: the artisan naturalists of South Lancashire’. Manchester Region History Review 5: 3-10.

Ross, J H 2015: Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) and the Medical World. Gaskell Society Newsletter 60: 9-17.

Secord, Anne 2005: ‘Elizabeth Gaskell and the artisan naturalists of Manchester’. GSJ 19:34-51.

Secord, James A 2000: Victorian Sensation. University of Chicago Press.

Sumner, James 2009: John Dalton’s Manchester: a short walk around the cIty centre. Based on material from ‘Science Places: Manchester’ by James Sumner and John Pickstone.  and

Sumner, James 2016: The History of Science, Technology and Medicine In Alan Kidd and Terry Wyke (eds) Manchester: Making the Modern City, pp. 119-169Liverpool University Press.

Uglow, Jenny 1993: Elizabeth Gaskell: a Habit of Stories. Faber.


  1. ‘Scientist’ is used here to include a wide range of amateur and professional practitioners and writers, including people more likely to identify themselves as doctors, naturalists, engineers, industrialists etc. The word ‘scientist’ was coined by William Whewell in 1840.
  2. It is difficult to know the depth of Elizabeth’s acquaintance with some of the people mentioned here and some she may never actually have met. It is also almost certain that there are other individuals who should be included whom we have missed off the list, for example academic colleagues of Benjamin Brodie in Oxford. Most of the people Elizabeth knew are mentioned in her correspondence, but we do not have her letters to her husband William and it was he who would have had the most contact with science and industry. Inevitably, some of the above list is conjectural but we may assume that Elizabeth would have met many scientists at the British Association meetings she attended, especially the two which William helped to organise in Manchester in 1842 and 1861 and the Glasgow meeting of 1855 which she attended with Marianne.
  3. Calico was untreated cotton fabric, straight off the loom with no dying or printing.
  4. In his early work Joule used the word ‘heat’ for what would later come to be called ‘energy’.
  5. Agassiz’s 10-volume work on fossil fishes (1839) made him famous and the Portico Library had obtained a copy by 1845, so it was available to Elizabeth via William. Sadly, it was sold in 1971.
  6. Many Manchester buildings, streets and place names are named after people listed in this document, and several are commemorated by blue plaques around the City.

The guides brought the home alive. It was inspiring to hear about this woman and extraordinary family

Visitor to the House in 2021