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May 4, 2009 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

There are Women Amongst the Dead White Men

It can be disheartening, as a woman studying science today, to learn about the accomplishments of lists and lists of great men, seemingly without a woman among them. For most of history, women have been discouraged from or denied a scientific education and the opportunity to become scientists. King James I, the successor of Queen Elizabeth I, who did not allow his daughter an education, said “to make women learned and foxes tame has the same effect—to make them more cunning”.

Even today, women are vastly underrepresented in many of the sciences. Despite this, history is full of women who studied informally, at home or in convents, when denied access to universities, and women who endured overt and covert discrimination when allowed to study. For all the barriers and bias, there are many women whose ideas and discoveries are remembered decades or even centuries later.

One of the earliest examples of great women scientists is Maria the Jewess. Maria was an alchemist who lived some time between the first and third centuries AD. If you study chemistry then you’ve probably used anapparatus attributed to her—Maria invented the bain-marie or water-bath, used when chemicals need to be heated slowly. The discovery of hydrochloric acid is also attributed to Maria.

In the late fourth to early fifth century AD, Hypatia of Alexandria studied and taught mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. Hypatia’s most notable mathematical work was in the geometry of conic sections. Among her wide and varied body of work, Hypatia `invented the hydrometer, used to measure relative densities of liquids, and was among the first to chart celestial bodies. Hypatia is also remembered for her death. A pagan living in Christian Rome, and a “valiant defender of science against religion”, Hypatia was viciously murdered by a Christian mob in 415 AD. Ada Lovelace, the daughter of poet Lord Byron, is often described as the “first programmer”. She was encouraged in her study of mathematics by her mother Annabella Milbanke (dubbed “Princess of Parallelograms” by Byron), and was provided with tutors galore. It was at a dinner party hosted by one such tutor that Lovelace first met the mathematician Charles Babbage.

Babbage designed the first general-purpose computer, the analytical engine—and though he never built his analytical engine, Lovelace wrote programmes for the unbuilt machine, and foresaw the ability of computers to one day go far beyond use in mathematical calculations.

Ada Lovelace is the first in a long line of accomplished female computer programmers. Rear Admiral Grace Hopper’s contribution to programming was particularly remarkable given that it came at a time when women’s involvement with computers was largely routine, like that of the dozens of women on both sides of World War II who set, read, and maintained encoding and code-breaking machines according to strict instructions. Grace Hopper received her PhD in mathematics from Yale University in 1934, and was part of the teams that worked on early computers Harvard Mark I and Univac I.

Computer science and engineering students have much to be grateful to Grace Hopper for: she invented the first high-level programming language and the first ever compiler. Programming early computers with instructions written in machine language was a time-consuming and unwieldy task. Hooper came up with the idea of writing a programming language closer to English, and therefore easier for humans to write, read and understand. It was in order to translate this high-level language into assembly language that Hopper wrote the first ever compiler. It is thanks to her that many of the advances in computer-based technology became feasible—without the ability to programme in an easily understood language, the process would be torturously difficult.

Of course, there are many female mathematicians who are remembered for their maths, rather than work in computer programming. Emmy Noether was a German mathematician amongst whose many great achievements was her revolutionising of the field of algebra. ‘Noether’s theorem’, which describes the relationship between symmetry and conservation laws, is fundamental to modern physics. Noether developed it at a time when she was not even being paid for her work. Noether was described by Einstein as being the most important woman in the history of mathematics, and her achievements were brilliant by any standard.

Not all women interested in science would be as successful as Noether, and many would pursue other interests. Beatrix Potter is a name familiar to most, but before those cute hedgehogs and bunnies, Potter was drawing intricate pictures of fungi for her career as a scientific illustrator in the 1890s. Despite parental and societal disapproval, Potter pursued her interest in mycology, moving from illustrating fungi to researching them. Her paper on spore germination was presented to the Linnean Society, but as a woman, she was unable to attend meetings. For the same reason she was denied admission to study at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Despite being denied the opportunity to move beyond the realm of the amateur, Potter’s research was on the cutting edge of mycology. However, the institutions of the time weren’t interested in her work, and so Potter went on instead to her resounding fame in children’s literature.

Other women had successful scientific careers, but did not receive due recognition for their work. Rosalind Franklin was a biophysicist in the 1940s and 50s. Her work on the tobacco mosaic virus and polio virus greatly advanced our understanding of these microorganisms, though she is now best known for her contribution to our understanding of DNA. Rosalind Franklin made images of DNA molecules using x-ray crystallography, and studied the implications of their structure. Her experimental work provided part of the foundation for Watson and Crick’s revolutionary model of DNA.

It is not an exaggeration to say that Watson and Crick could not have developed their model of DNA without Franklin’s work. Tragically, it was not until well after her death in 1958 that her contribution was acknowledged. This has been attributed to the fact that Watson and Crick acquired her unpublished work in a manner that was not entirely above board. Franklin worked in a time in which the feminist adage that a woman must work twice as hard as a man to be considered half as good was certainly true. Her work was often ignored or its importance minimised, and with regards to her DNA work, Franklin was often cited only in conjunction with her superior at King’s College, Maurice Wilkins, even in cases where he had little to do with her research.

Chien-Shiung Wu, an expert in radioactivity, was a woman whose contribu-tion was ignored by the Nobel Prize Commi-ttee. She experimentally verified the work done by Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang in the field of particle physics that won them the award in 1957. She is also known for her work on the Manhattan Project, where she developed a method of separating uranium isotopes in order to produce bomb-grade uranium. Wu was the first female scientist to serve as President of the American Physical Society—as well as being the first living scientist to have an asteroid named after her!

Marie Equi was a doctor and activist born to Irish and Italian immigrant parents in the United States in 1872. She graduated from medical school in 1903, at a time when very few universities admitted female students. In her work as a doctor, Equi is remembered for organising humanitarian aid for those affected by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, providing women with information about and access to birth control, and performing abortions on women without regard to a patient’s class or social status. Beyond her work as a doctor, Equis is remembered for a list of astonishing achievements. Equi—who was as openly lesbian as the times allowed, despite a threat from her family to revoke her inheritance on the basis of her sexuality—adopted a child to raise with her partner, and was involved in the union, suffrage, and anti-war movements. While attending to an injured worker during a strike of female cherry-pickers, Equi was attacked by police in a brutal attempt to break the strike; as a result of her protests in opposition to World War I, Equi was arrested, convicted, and jailed for sedition.

Florence Bascom was another pioneering American scientist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in 1862, Bascom was educated at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and John Hopkins University. Bascom was a geologist whose research involved geomorphology and crystalline rocks. She was the first woman to be appointed to the United States Geological Survey (in 1896). Bascom was part of another event that at the time was uncommon—a scientific dispute solely between women.

The dispute was a civil one, between Bascom and two of her students, Eleanora Bliss and Anna Jonas Stose, and regarded the age of a type of schist in the Appalachian region of the United States. The disagreement was taken up by supporters on either side and lasted well into the 1930s.

This, of course, is just a drop in the ocean—and that’s without getting into the countless women working in science and technology today. Thankfully, most of the historical barriers faced by women in pursuing their scientific careers are now gone. But as you work towards great discoveries of your own, remember some of these women upon whose work you are building; and in whose forays into education, whether quiet or challenging, you follow.


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  1. Just wanted to say thanks for an excellent overview – women are hugely undervalued in the annals of popular science, and I would totally add to that list Mary Anning, one of the most astute and impoverished paleontologists of the nineteenth century.

    However I think it’s only fair to point out that Rosalind Franklin died of bone cancer in 1958, four years before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Watson and Crick. Under the Committee rules the Prize can only be offered to living recipients, so Franklin’s relative obscurity is arguably more an accident of history rather than overt misogyny.

    Anyway each of the women you’ve named led fascinating lives and I hope everyone who reads this hunts out their biographies. Or if they can’t be bothered doing that, at least read Kate Beaton’s history comics at Hark! A Vagrant.

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