Featured string: Women in Science
The issue of women’s under-representation in the higher-prestige levels of science and science awards continues to be a hot-button issue today, and much like my search for the hidden women artists in the collections with API available to ArtString, that under-representation extends to the museum collections–or rather to their attributions. The work of women is everywhere in the Science Museum; whether it’s acknowledged as theirs is another matter.
After adding the one female name credited in the Science Museum’s API, Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin, I was immediately forced to get creative; searching for women I’d heard of had brought me nothing. While I already suspected that women’s individual contributions to the fields of different sciences might not be honoured on the system labels, I was confident that if Nobel Laureates were involved, they’d be mentioned.
As it turned out, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin had already been named; of the other female Nobel Laureates in scientific fields, not the most recent (Donna Strickland and Francis Arnold for Physics and Chemistry respectively, in 2018), nor the first (Marie Curie, who remains the only woman to have one the Nobel prize in any field twice, and was the first person to do so) were name-checked.
I could hardly believe it! We learn about Marie Curie in primary school. While Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin is the only woman from the United Kingdom so far to have won a Nobel prize in a science subject, but one of the best ways to ensure more do in the future would surely be to begin inspiring small girls with what they can achieve?
It was clear I was going to have to go sideways in my hunt. First, I sought out a reasonably comprehensive list of discoveries and inventions by women, in case examples had been included and not credited…
This is how I learned that disposal nappies were invented by a woman! Marion Donovan‘s design was used by Proctor & Gamble to create the world-renowned Pampers… although perhaps campaigners against pollution might not thank her for this, and nor will plumbers, as the flushing of disposable nappies down toilets contributes enormously to sewer blockages and backed up loos (please don’t flush nappies).
It was also how I learned of Lise Meitner, and her contribution to the world of nuclear physics: as one of the leaders of the team who discovered nuclear fission in uranium, she left behind a mixed legacy; her work has provided electricity to many parts of the world, but that energy provision’s inherent danger has resulted in catastrophes like Chernobyl and Fukushima. Additionally, and most strikingly, nuclear fission was the theory behind the creation of nuclear warheads; weapons of mass destruction whose threat overshadowed much of the 20th Century and whose test process did untold damage both to ecological systems and local populations.
Does Lise Meitner have to be held responsible for the consequences of this discovery? IT goes against the very core of scientific research to suppress discoveries or hold back from the pursuit of knowledge. Now in the 21st Century we find ourselves facing questions of scientific ethics and responsibility once again: what are the proper applications of genetic testing and gene editing technologies on human populations? Do robots have rights? And what does our increasingly internet-capable world leave us vulnerable to?
In thinking about expanding horizons, I was reminded that astronauts, too, must be scientists; and if there is one area of science that the Science Museum has displayed a real flair for in the 20th Century, it’s space exploration.
I was (finally) not disappointed: both Valentina Tereshkova (the first woman in space) and Helen Sharman (first Briton in space) were represented. It’s good to see that future generations of women astronauts and cosmonauts have easy access to people they can look up to–hopefully by the time they qualify, they won’t have to face the kind of questions Yelena Serova recently answered.
After expanding my search to include female explorers and aviators, I was able to include personal heroine and national icon Amy Johnson. A record-setting aviatrix, Johnson died young while transporting planes as part of the war effort in WW2…
…which led me to another recollection: the huge numbers of code-breaking “computers” and mathematical staff at the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park. Codebreaking (and constructing), or “cryptography”, continued the process of developing what we now know today as computers: automated thinking and calculating machines. Elsewhere in the Science Museum is Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine; an early computer whose programmes were devised by one Ada Lovelace. Ada gives her name to the day in October devoted to celebrating the achievements of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) fields.
After taking a brief stop in the British Museum’s collection to acknowledge the valuable work of the pioneering entomologist (someone who studies insects) Maria Sibylla Merian (and her daughters, who contributed to her masterwork), I returned to the Science Museum to discover some more hidden connections:
Rachel Mary Parsons, who founded the first engineering company run by women with women engineers, alongside her mother.
Although Marie Curie is not credited, work that simply could not have existed without her discoveries is on display.
And finally, a woman whose contributions to the field of genetics should have won her a Nobel Prize had she not already sadly passed away, whose name crops in protests about the writing out of women from scientific history: Rosalind Franklin, uncredited in this model.
It’s possible we may not know how many other women’s discoveries, inventions, and contributions have been attributed to men and men alone; how many other exhibits already in the museum may at some future point turn out to relate to work done by women but credited to their male counterparts. Let’s hope that if they are determined to be the work of women, they’re credited that way.
Of course, the story of the Individual Genius is a misleading one, a kind of heroic ideal that doesn’t really apply. Lise Meitner was one of the leaders of a team. Valentina Tereshkova was supported by an enormous space agency. The “Lone Genius Hero” image cooked up of James Watt in the days of Empire was, as the Science Museum itself admits, the act of an empire in need of a new hero to gaze on adoringly after the death of Wellington. As steam drove the empire, Watt seemed like an obvious choice. Newton, too, has been raised to this hallowed status–even though he, too, collaborated and exchanged ideas with others at the Royal Society and abroad.
Moving to remove the ego and the myth of the Lone Genius from the record of scientific discovery is probably a very wise move–it just seems quite sad that, in the process, the many often faceless women who laboured to bring their own discoveries and inventions into the world barely get a tenth of the recognition that was historically granted to male thinkers–leap-frogged by changing ideas of how to represent progress.