Women and science

Also see our related article Were there any female scientists before the 18th century and the development of scientific study?

The Sciences and Medicine are fields of study that have long been dominated by men. Whilst this has slowly begun to change over the last 150 years or so, even now, men still outnumber women in most research labs and university science departments.

Historically the male bias is understandable. For centuries, the majority of women were not educated at all and those fortunate enough to receive tutoring were pushed towards the arts, literature, language and other “ladylike” pursuits. The potential dangers of the chemistry lab or the visceral nature of anatomy were not considered suitable for ladies. However, there are historic examples of women who, despite society’s disapproval, made significant contributions to the advancement of science. They were not always credited for their work (Mary Anning for example) and were sometimes shunned or, like Hypatia and the countless herbalists burned as witches in the Middle Ages, killed for it.

In this article I look at the careers of ten women whom I consider to be crucial to the history of women’s role in the western scientific tradition. Whether as teachers and disseminators of information like Hypatia and Jane Marcet, or as brilliant research scientists like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, these women are inspirational. It was very hard choosing only ten from the legion of brilliant female scientists, especially those of recent years, but I have tried to represent a variety of scientific subjects here and the women below are each trailblazers in their own way.

 

Hypatia 350 (or 370)AD – 415AD

Hypatia is somewhat of a legend in the history of women’s role in the sciences, not least for her dramatic end, torn apart by a Christian mob. Hypatia was the daughter of Theon Alexandricus, the last known mathematician to be associated with the Museum of Alexandria, and she is credited with being the first notable woman in the field of Mathematics. She was not a pure scientist, rather a teacher and commentator who encouraged logical and mathematical study. Among works attributed to her are commentaries on the Arithmetica of Diophantus and Conics by Appollonius. She edited Ptolemy’s Almagest and her father’s commentary on Euclid’s Elements and wrote a text on The Astronomical Canon. It is impossible to say to what extent Hypatia’s work was also a collaboration with her father but there is reason to assume she was a talented mathematician in her own right.

Louise Bourgeois 1563-1636

Louise Bourgeois can be credited as the founder of modern midwifery. Married to the French Royal Surgeon, Bourgeois encouraged a new, scientific approach to midwifery and collaborated with male surgeons in order to gain a better understanding of her subject. She studied Ambroise Parés book on Obstetrics and wrote several treatises of her own on the subject. Her 1609 book, ‘Various Observations on Sterility, Ability to Conceive, Childbirth, Female Illnesses and Infants’ went through five editions and was translated into four languages. She was also the first person to describe the treatment of Chlorosis (severe iron deficiency anaemia) with iron. Midwifery had always been the preserve of women, but until Louise Bourgeois, it was more about experience and folk medicine than science. Her approach changed that and undoubtedly made childbirth safer for countless women.

 

Caroline Herschel 1750-1848

Caroline Herschel was fortunate in that her brother William Herschel was the Royal Astronomer at the court in Windsor. William trained Caroline as his general assistant to help with writing down his observations and helping him to produce reflective telescopes. She thus became the first woman to receive a salary for scientific work. But Caroline also taught herself algebra and the formulae needed to observe the stars and, between 1786 and 1797, she discovered eight comets and 14 nebulae as well as writing a catalogue of star clusters and nebulae and contributing to Flamsteed’s ‘Atlas of Stars’. She was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1828 and became an honorary member of this organisation in 1835.

Jane Haldemond Marcet 1769-1858

Jane Marcet was a popular science writer. Her contribution to science lay with her ability to explain complicated theories in ways that anyone could understand. Pure science is important but so is the popularisation of science. A teacher or writer who can inspire people to take up scientific enquiry is every bit as important as scientists themselves. Mrs Marcet attended Humphry Davy’s lectures at the Royal Institution and was an exponent of experimental chemistry. Her 1805 book, ‘Conversations in Chemistry’, was illustrated with clear diagrams of the equipment needed for experiments and she constantly updated the book with new discoveries, indeed it saw 16 editions. Her work had a profound effect on a young Michael Faraday who praised her as “one able to convey the truth and principle of those boundless fields of knowledge which concern natural things, to the young, untaught and enquiring minds”.

Mary Anning 1799-1847

Mary Anning was born in Lyme Regis, Dorset, on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast. Anning’s knowledge of the coastline and skill for locating and preparing fossils provided the sciences of geology and palaeontology with a series of important finds. Among these and perhaps most well known were her discovery of the first Ichthyosaur to be recognised (now in the Natural History Museum, London), the first Pterosaur skeleton outside Germany and the first two Plesiosaur skeletons ever to be found. Anning’s discoveries along with her observations from the field played a key role in changing the way scientists thought about changes in the natural world. She did not always receive full credit for her contributions during her lifetime and, after her death was largely forgotten in scientific circles. However, without Mary Anning’s sharp eye and keen observation, our knowledge and understanding of prehistoric life forms would be much poorer.

Florence Nightingale 1820-1910

Every schoolchild hears the story of Florence Nightingale, the caring “lady of the lamp” However, it is not for Florence Nightingale’s nursing work that I include her, rather for her work as a statistician. Whilst in the Crimea nursing wounded soldiers, Nightingale kept meticulous records on the causes of death of soldiers in the hospital. She used these to demonstrate that the death toll rose in certain months due to the presence of diseases such as Typhus and Cholera. Her findings were not just useful for the military, workhouses had the same problems and her statistics were used as the basis for poor law reform in the UK. For much of her life, Florence Nightingale was bedridden, yet she still published over 200 pamphlets and books on subjects ranging from Public Health in India to Sepsis in lying in institutions. She was the first woman elected as a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, as well as being made an honorary fellow of the American Statistical Society. Nightingale showed great insight into the use of statistical analysis in the pursuit of public health and it is my view that she should be remembered for this, rather than nursing.

Hertha Ayrton 1854-1923

Hertha Ayrton became the first woman to be elected a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In assisting her husband with his experiments in physics and electricity, she became an expert on the electric arc (now used industrially in welding, steel furnaces, movie projectors and stage spotlights) and published the widely acclaimed work, ‘The Electric Arc’ in 1902. In the same year she was the first woman to be nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society but her married status prevented her from being elected. In 1904, she was the first woman to read her own paper (‘The Origin and Growth of the Ripple Mark’) before the Royal Society.

Marie Curie 1867-1934

It is impossible to compile a list of influential women in the sciences without including the brilliant Marie Curie. Not only the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie is also one of only two people (the other is Linus Pauling) to win two Nobel Prizes in different disciplines.

Marie Curie’s first Nobel Prize (Physics, 1903) was for her work on radiation. She shared the prize with her husband, Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel. Becquerel had discovered in 1896 that uranium salts emit rays, now known as radiation. The Curies built on Becquerel’s discovery and discovered that the rays emitted by uranium salts caused the air around the sample to conduct electricity. Most importantly, Marie Curie went on to prove that the radiation came from the atom itself, rather than an interaction of molecules. Her discovery forced physicists to reconsider the basic principles of their science.

During her research, Marie Curie tested the uranium-related minerals, pitchblende and chalcolite, as she found a much greater radioactivity, she postulated that these minerals contained another element, much more radioactive than uranium. She and Pierre worked together processing vast quantities of ore and managed to isolate a new element which they named Polonium, after Marie’s native Poland. Several months later they succeeded in isolating the more unstable Radium. By 1902 they had succeeded in extracting one tenth of a gram of radium chloride from a tonne of bismuth, but by 1906 Marie, working on her own after Pierre’s death, had isolated the pure radium metal. Marie Curie won the Chemistry prize in 1911 in recognition of her work in isolating the elements, Polonium and Radium. The implications of her work were far reaching. Diametrically opposed in terms of their effect on society, her discovery led ultimately to both the development of the atomic bomb and radiation therapy for cancer patients.

Rosalind Franklin 1920-1958

Crick, Watson and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA in 1962 without mentioning the work of Rosalind Franklin, which had provided them with crucial information regarding the structure of the double helix. It is one of science’s most outrageous omissions that Franklin was never credited in their work.

Rosalind Franklin was a brilliant physical chemist and a specialist in x-ray crystallography, a method used to find the arrangement of atoms within a crystal. An x-ray is focussed on the crystal and when it strikes, diffracts in many different directions. From the angle and intensity of these beams, a crystallographer can work out the position of the atoms, chemical bonds and the structure of the crystal. Rosalind Franklin’s work concentrated on materials that were poorly crystallised, such as carbon, graphite and plant viruses. These are not easy to work with, yet Franklin was renowned for her incredible ability to get results from these difficult samples.

In 1951, she began work on DNA at King’s College, London. Like the carbons she had worked with in France, DNA gives poor diffraction patterns, but this did not deter Franklin. DNA has two forms – A and B, it was Rosalind Franklin’s unique photograph of the B-form, shown secretly to Crick and Watson that provided them with the essential evidence to back up their proposed double helix structure.

Rosalind Franklin died 4 years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins received the Nobel Prize for their work on DNA. Had she survived would she have been the third recipient? Probably not as it wasn’t until 1968, in his book, ‘The Double Helix’, that Watson admitted to the secret viewing of the photograph.

Dame Kathleen Mary Kenyon 1906-1978

Kathleen Kenyon was an archaeologist and one of the early proponents of Mortimer Wheeler’s systematic approach of meticulously controlled and recorded stratigraphic excavation. She was one of the founders of UCL’s Institute of Archaeology along with Wheeler and worked on some of world’s most fascinating sites including Great Zimbabwe, Sabratha and Verulamium. But it is for her work at Jericho that Kenyon is remembered. Here she made ground-breaking discoveries about the Neolithic and early Bronze Age cultures of the Levant and formulated one of the two leading theories at the time regarding the development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Kenyon made a huge contribution to our understanding of ancient culture.

 

The Unknowns

Finally, a mention of the unknown women who have in their own way contributed to the History of Science. Most people have heard of Edward Jenning, the man who pioneered the smallpox vaccination, undoubtedly saving millions of lives worldwide and leading ultimately to the eradication of the disease. However, the woman who provided him with the crucial information that lead to his discovery (that she could not contract smallpox as she had already had the cowpox) only goes down in history as “a milkmaid”. There are many such examples in the history of medicine; the “old woman” who told Ambrose Paré to apply onion to burns (onions were, much later, discovered to have anti-microbial properties) and “Mother Hutton” whose foxglove cure for fluid accumulation (oedema) inspired William Withering to isolate digitalis. For thousands of years, the majority of Britain’s population consulted “wise women” or herbalists when they were sick. These anonymous women rarely feature in the history books as they quietly went about their business, doling out folk remedies and medical knowledge based on their observations of nature. Robert Boyle recognised the value of this knowledge when he commented that useful scientific information could be gathered from “midwives, barbers, old women, empiricles and other illiterate persons”. These women were not great scientists like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin, but their observations often contributed invaluable information to the field of scientific enquiry.

Copyright: Fiona Michie, 2010

Related links
Women and Enlightenment science, BBC In Our Time, 4 November 2010
Women and witchcraft, BBC In Our Time, 21 October 2004