Princess Dashkova’s Academies

A brief tale of early professionalisation of science, and the importance of power in allyship

Princess Dashkova’s noble Vorontsov family’s coat of arms. “Semper immota fides” roughly means “an always immutable faith” in Latin. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Only Way is Up

Princess Dashkova Yekaterina Romanovna Vorontsova — Princess Dashkova for short — was born into a highly distinguished noble family in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her childhood had been one of privilege, and she was raised to be married off to a man worthy of her family’s status. One month before her sixteenth birthday, Dashkova was married to Prince Mikhail I Dashkov. It was thus that she gained the title of “princess” (Gordin, 2006: 6–7).

The balcony is tall and far in the distance. Cannons and carts are being pushed towards the large audience around the balcony. People climb the walls of the palace. A group of soldiers watch from the foreground, as people cheer as they climb and swing around a scaffold.
Catherine II on a balcony of the Winter Palace on 9 July 1762, the day of the coup. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Success at the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences

Upon her return to Russia in 1782, Princess Dashkova was surprised by a request from Catherine II: she was asked to head the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences. The reasons for her appointment are unclear, but she had obviously had an excellent education, and her becoming distinguished amongst the intellectual circles of Western Europe would have only played in her favour. Gordin (ibid.) speculates, though, on the political reasons why the empress might be interested in this appointment. Firstly, it was a way to call the bluff of European statesmen who only paid lip-service to the idea of gender equality. Secondly, Princess Dashkova was astute and savvy in the ways of the court, so this appointment would neutralise her position; keep your friends close and your enemies even closer.

  • Secondly, there were only 27 students enrolled when she joined, some of whom could not even attend classes; this was despite the Academy’s statutes demanding there be 50 students (Gordin, 2006: 13). Over the years, the princess increased the Academy’s prestige by tapping into her international and national networks to recruit renowned scholars (Raney, 1993: 119). With its growing prestige, Princess Dashkova presided over 89 successful students in three years (Gordin, 2006: 13).
  • Thirdly, the Academy’s publication had not been in print since 1779, which would have explained its dwindling economics. By running the Academy like a business, Princess Dashkova reinvigorated its role as a publisher, focussed its publications to scholarly articles only, and raised their prices by 30%. These were crucial moves to ensure the Academy’s financial prosperity (ibid.).
  • Finally, academic members were overburdened with administrative tasks that diminished the scientific outputs they could produce. This inspired a key aspect of Princess Dashkova’s contribution to scientific institutions (ibid.: 14).
Princess Dashkova shown in half-length and is seen turned to the right. She has grey hair and wears the Russian court dress of a lady-in-waiting: a white undergown with diaphanous pleated sleeves and lace trim beneath a sleeveless robe of stiff blue satin with gold embroidery. Across her bodice hangs the red moire sash of the Order of St. Catherine. The star of the order is pinned to her gown, together with a diamond-studded lady-in-waiting pin set with a miniature portrait of the empress.
E. Vorontsova-Dashkova by Dmitry Levitsky (1784). Alt text adapted from Hillwood. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Nuance at the Russian Academy

It would be great if I could argue that Princess Dashkova provides a perfect example of how to run an academic organisation — by distancing oneself from the academic work itself. We can indeed learn this from her running of the Academy of Sciences. However, in 1783 and as inspired by her own suggestion to the courts, she came to preside over a brand new institute: the Russian Academy. In this case, she was more involved with academic projects. Notwithstanding, her running of the organisation was just as successful. For this reason, it would be unfounded to claim that the clear distinction between academics and administrators is the only way to run such an institute.

An owl sits above a globe with a staff of Hermes, a key and a lyre attached. The globe sits upon a pedestal with text in Cyrillic which I cannot read.
The symbol on the commemorative medal for the establishment of the Russian Academy in 1783, as explained here. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Retirement, Reflection and Disguise

“Mon Histoire” provides a very personal account of Princess Dashkova’s life (Heldt, 1987: 88). In it, we learn that Dashkova was not unaware of the privileged position she had as a woman*. Both Heldt and Gordin identify Princess Dashkova as the first woman* to ever lead a learned society (ibid.: 26; Gordin, 2006: 4). Furthermore, Heldt notes the peculiarity of Princess Dashkova speaking about her children in Mon Histoire, something that is not seen in men’s autobiographies of the sort (Heldt, 1987: 88).

Other Academic Institutes and their First Women* Members

Over the years, thanks to her intellect, Grand Tour of Western Europe and her successful leadership of the Academy of Sciences and the Russian Academy, Princess Dashkova’s renown continued to grow. In 1789, she became the first female* member of both the Leopoldina in Germany (, n.d.) and the American Society of Philosophy (Woronzoff-Dashkoff, 1996). Then, in 1791, she became the first female* honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy (, 2019).

Princess Dashkova’s Allies

A more systematic analysis of the election of women* into learned societies would be an interesting project, but I fear its outcome would bring little more than what the above organisations show us: men in positions of power have historically discounted the scholarly potential of women*. This speaks to Princess Dashkova’s experiences. On the one hand, she had found an exceptional male ally in the statesman Potemkin, whose death in 1791 propelled the events that weakened the princess’ position in the court and led to her exile (Raney, 1993: 160). On the other hand, the princess came to realise that her own prestige hinged on the patronage of another woman*, Catherine II (Woronzoff-Dashkoff, 1991: 74).

Grigory Potemkin looks surprised at Catherine II, who holds a golden baton to block his passage as she looks confidently ahead. People around them watch. The sea with many ships is in the background.
Grigory Potemkin and Catherine the Great. (I couldn’t find details about the painting or a reliable source I could understand...)



Currently studying MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the LSE. Previously managed research governance at the UK’s national AI institute. Assoc CIPD.

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Ismael Kherroubi Garcia

Currently studying MSc in Philosophy of the Social Sciences at the LSE. Previously managed research governance at the UK’s national AI institute. Assoc CIPD.