You might have read Richard Holmes’ article in the Observer this weekend on the “lost” women of Victorian Science.
As several people pointed out, these people weren’t “lost” to all of us. Anyone with an interest in Victorian popular science will have heard of at least some of these names already. But that doesn’t mean such people are generally known about. Neither does it mean people who didn’t know about these people are somehow ignorant or stupid. Maybe you don’t know about Arabella Buckley, you know other things.
As Holmes himself writes:
Science should sow “seeds”. Science should broadcast, should disperse the seeds of knowledge to all and as imaginatively as possible. Science, and the scientific method, should become a new means of general education and enlightenment, not merely for the elite. Until scientific knowledge was explained, explored and widely understood by the population at large, the work of scientists would always be incomplete.
The same is true for the study of science’s history. It’s all very well sitting there and saying “I knew that already” (as I admit, I smugly did while reading Holmes) but what use is that (unless all you want to be is sit being smug I suppose).
A few people on twitter had the idea for a group-blog on the topic throughout December (i.e. the last month of the Royal Society’s 350th anniversary year). Join us! Tell us about a woman of science you think more people should know about, or take the time to do some research into one you’d like to know more about, and then share what you’ve learnt.
We’d like to keep some connection to the Royal Society, so someone connected with UK science is preferred. It’s worth noting that the Royal Society’s journals are free to access until the 30 Nov (right back to 1665), which might be useful for research. Also, to add to the people mentioned by Holmes, there is a good list here.
Have a think and leave a comment here with who you think you’ll write about (you might be able to link up with someone writing about a similar topic). When you’ve posted your piece, leave a link here too, so I can put up a list of all the pieces at the start of the new year, ready for the next 350 years of the Royal Society’s history.
Me, I’ll extend on some of the kids’ writers Holmes mentions (i.e. Arabella Buckley). EDIT: done! Although I do talk about men in that post too, because I don’t really like dividing up history like that.
I wonder if any of these women of science (of any era) have plaques honouring their work?
It would be great to make a real effort to represent these women on http://www.plaqueguide.com by photographing them.
Maria Sybilla Merian (1647 – 1717) – adventurer, biologist, single mother. The first person, woman or man, to undertake a journey to the new world specifically for the purpose of scientific study – http://www.audubonhouse.org/merian/merian.cfm
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Caroline Herschel, an astronomer that dicovered several comets.
I have to confess that I only found out about Caroline because Herschel’s observatory house is 2 streets up from where I live.
I’d love to write about Edith Rebecca Saunders, the great plant botanist whose work with William Bateson brought Mendel into the mainstream. (Bonus: the two of them attracted many other women into genetics, which was “a field that had not yet gained full scientific authority, and hence was not widely attractive to young male research students seeking to advance their future career prospects” (http://www.nature.com/nrg/journal/v8/n11/full/nrg2200.html).
I enjoyed Holmes’s article and appreciated his bringing some of these ‘lost women’ and ways of thinking about their roles to a wider public. I have some doubts, perhaps, about his book, if it does not go significantly further than bringing together exisiting scholarship on these individuals. I am also sometime dubious about the aim ‘rescuing’ women from history. While I don’t deny that some made significant contributions, there are many men who made more significant contributions than some of these women, who will be forogtten, and left forgotten because they are second or third-tier scientsts.
That said, I have in the past found interesting women connected to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, to blog about. I’d be glad to join in this effort too – perhaps with astronomer and historian of astronomy, Agnes Clerke.
Finally, doesn’t the Royal Society anniversary year end on 30 November, at their anniversary meeting?
Ha, I did wonder about the 30th Nov… I just didn’t think it’d be enough time if people wanted to do some research, which I liked the idea.
I also agree on notion of rescuing.
An additional point I’d make on Holmes’ piece is the whole sense of women bringing morality, a heart, beauty and ‘poetry’ to science. Maybe I’m being too touchy there though.
Yes – I was going to add that point about women bringing morality, being popularisers etc. It’s kind of ironic if the attempt is to ‘rescue’ women from a man’s world, only to find that their success, such as it was, came from working within traditionally feminine realms. I think that it does tell us something very important about women and science in history, lessons which are still relevant today, but it works less well as a straightfoward feminist celebration.
Tokenism is never a good thing, but I think it is important to mention that there have been women scientists for a long time, regardless of their “tier”:mentioning only the exceptional ones only reinforces the idea that science isn’t really a women’s thing.
Lots of the scientific work and discoveries are the result of the combined contributions of many people, women and men, and probably we also should celebrate more that collective effort.
The Royal Society produced its own list of the top 10 women from the past this year http://royalsociety.org/Most-influential-British-women-in-the-history-of-science/ giving some more names beyond those in the Holmes’ article. Not sure how recent past you are looking at, but I would certainly highlight Elsie Widdowson and (much more recently) Anne Maclaren. And you are right about November 30th, but I wouldn’t let that spoil a good project. After all, the Holmes book itself doesn’t seem to be coming out for a while.
Agreed on the fabulous Elsie Widdowson. I intend to write-up an overview of Harriet Chick and Muriel Robertson.
On Rebekah Higgitt’s point, I’ve been trying to put together some information about researchers with disabilities in the history of science and it’s proving to be both frustrating and eye-opening. I doubt there is a family connection to the excellent Tim Minchin but one of Muriel Robertson’s mentors was EA Minchin who had a remarkable output despite the limitations related to his Spina Bifida.
I hope to post one of these women next week but it will probably be later in December.
We recently funded some research at Warwick University to look at early women biochemists. As part of our Centenary activities next year, I’m going to be developing a website dedicated to, and expanding on, this research – which is currently housed here: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/chm/research_teaching/womenbiochemists/. It’s fascinating stuff.
Glad you liked my linked list! I’m thinking about writing a post about Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971), a pioneering crystallographer who established the structure of benzene and worked for a time under the younger Bragg.
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This is a really interesting project, and I’ve just posted about a handful of ‘Heroines of Science’ on the Royal Society’s History of Science blog
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Émilie du Châtelet
Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt wrote: I’d be glad to join in this effort too – perhaps with astronomer and historian of astronomy, Agnes Clerke.
Been there done that!
One from the gutter
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Has anyone thought of writing about the metallurgist Constance Tipper (born Constance Elam)? Her connection with the Royal Society is that she was co-author with G.I. Ingram of the 1923 Bakerian Lecture. She was accordingly invited to attend the dinner afterwards. However, when it was discovered that C.F. Elam was female, panic ensued. The Bakerian lecturer was traditionally invited to dine at the Athenaeum – where women were not allowed. Elam gracefully let it be known that she was unavailable for dinner, and the Fellows decided that in lieu they would send her a box of chocolates. She apologised for putting them to so much trouble. Under he married name of Constance Tipper she went on to solve the problem of brittle fractures in steel ships, and became a Reader in the Department of Engineering at Cambridge in 1949. Despite living to the astonishing age of 101 (she died only six years ago), she was never elected FRS.
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