December Editorial

While I was growing up I wanted to be a scientist, swimming with dolphins with Jaques Cousteau or tramping through jungles with David Attenborough. My heroes were the great men of science and I read and re-read a dusty old tome of my dad’s that described the life and works of these giants, like Faraday, Boyle and Mendeleev. I even sketched a mural of portraits taken from the etched plates in the book which I titled, somewhat pretentiously but accurately “Our Fathers”.

But where were the women?

Those of you who are my age will no doubt remember those black and white storyboards that were part of Blue Peter, narrated by Valerie Singleton and telling, in a way that made even the most exciting story uninteresting, the stories of great deeds and discoveries.

The only women I remember were Madame Curie, endlessly stirring vats of pitchblend, Florence Nightingale and that bloody lamp, the heroic Grace Darling and the pathetic and doomed Anne Frank.

So I was heartened to hear an edition of In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg which looked at the role of women in science in the Age of Enlightenment which goes some way to answering the question, “Where were the Women?”

While it is true that the Age was not hugely enlightened about the education of women;
“The education of women should always be relative to that of men. To please, to be useful to us, to make us love and esteem them, to educate us when young, to take care of us when grown up, to advise, to console us, to render our lives easy and agreeable … Even if she possessed real abilities, it would only debase her to display them”, J.J. Rousseau, 1762; and that women were excluded from scientific societies, universities and learned professions, the fact that science became a more acceptable way in which a gentleman could earn his living and that some areas of research were conducted in the domestic environment allowed a few women to make their mark.

Since most research was conducted in the home women became involved firstly as assistants to fathers, brothers and husbands, and with intellectual discussions also taking place in stately homes and salons women gained exposure to scientific discourse in their role as hostess.

Take Veuve Cliquot. FranÇois Clicquot died in 1805, leaving his widow (veuve in French) in control of a company. Under Madame Clicquot’s guidance the firm established their wines in royal courts throughout Europe.

When Lady Mary Montagu was in the Ottoman Empire, she discovered the local practice of inoculation against smallpox and had her son inoculated. On her return home she had her daughter inoculated and went on to promote the practice throughout the UK. Her actions follow the perfect template for scientific practice in the enlightenment; Observe – Test – Scale Up – Publicize.

Marie-Anne Pierette Paulze is most commonly known as Madame Lavoisier, wife of Antoine Lavoisier the famous French chemist but her contribution extended far beyond being simply his laboratory assistant. While her contribution to his work was not acknowledged in Lavoisier’s papers contemporary accounts do attest to her contribution and she continued to run the salon long after his death in the French Revolution.

The burgeoning field of astronomy afforded the perfect opportunity for women to contribute to scientific enquiry. Telescopes were largely housed in the homes of wealthy gentleman and often women were involved in making the masses of observations and measurements required or confirming the recordings of the men. Indeed it could be suggested that Elizabeth Hevelius, then only sixteen years old married the fifty two year old astronomer Johannes Hevelius mainly as it allowed her to pursue her own interest in astronomy! Following his death, she completed and published Prodromus astronomiae, their jointly compiled catalogue of 1,564 stars and their positions, an achievement that earned her the title ‘mother of the moon charts‘.

Caroline Herschel was another astronomer, sister to Sir William Herschel. Caroline had wanted to be an opera singer but was forced to support her brother as his workload increased and they worked together throughout his career. Her most significant individual contribution to astronomy was as the first woman to identify a comet. In 1835, along with Mary Somerville, she was elected to honorary membership of the Royal Astronomical Society; they were the first honorary women members. Again Caroline’s work extended beyond the death of her brother, as she continued to verify and confirm William’s findings and producing a catalogue of nebulae to assist her nephew John Herschel in his work. In 1828 the Royal Astronomical Society presented her with their Gold Medal for this work – no woman would be awarded it again until Vera Rubin in 1996!

Emilie du Châtelet, best known as mistress to Voltaire, also had a covert scientific career that culminated in the first French translation of Newton’s Principia. This was not simply a direct translation but Emilie tested the propositions, simplified the formula and turned complex mathematics into understandable prose. Voltaire himself celebrated Emilie as a ‘great and powerful genius‘. Together they wrote Elements of Newton’s Philosophy (1738), an extremely influential book that persuaded French experimenters to turn away from the works of René Descartes, and pledge allegiance to Newton instead. As he told a friend, “She dictated and I wrote.”

So women were there providing assistance, yes, but performing acts of innovation and discovery in their own right too! It is not just that ‘behind every great man there is a great woman‘.

While the marginalisation of these women and their accomplishments might be understandable in the society of 18th Century Europe it couldn’t still be the case now, could it?

Consider this then; we’ve all heard about Watson and Crick, heroes of mine as I had ambitions to be a geneticist at one stage in my university career but what of the long-overlooked contribution of the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin to the discovery of DNA structure? I was at university before I became aware of her work as it is largely overlooked in school text books.

So we all need to work to laud female innovators and technologists. There are plenty about!

There are more women millionaires under the age of 44 than there are men. If you’re reading this, how about putting some of that money into supporting young innovators?

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