Groundbreaking tribute: female scholars excavate land of their foremothers

April 28, 2011

Pioneering female academics who forged links between experimental and theoretical physics, revolutionised our understanding of ethical communities and even unearthed the bones of a pygmy hippopotamus are being celebrated in a lecture series.

The series of talks on women in research is being held at Royal Holloway, University of London, which was formed from the merger of two institutions including Bedford College, one of the UK's first higher education institutions for women.

It was this history that gave Edith Hall, research professor of Classics at Royal Holloway, the idea of asking five senior female colleagues to pay tribute to the academic mentors and foremothers who inspired their work.

The series opened on April with a lecture by Danielle Schreve, professor of quaternary science at the institution, who celebrated the remarkable career of Dorothea Bate (1878-1951).

Professor Schreve first came across Bate's work, she said, when she was based at the department of palaeontology at University College London and kept finding drawers full of tiny elephant molars and hippo jaws marked "DMA Bate Collection".

Bate, she discovered, had little formal education but spent most of her teenage years in the open air, acquiring a deeper knowledge of nature than school might have given her.

At the age of 19, she turned up at the Natural History Museum and virtually demanded a job in the bird section. She would later carry out fieldwork across the Mediterranean in isolated and often dangerous conditions. Her major fossil finds included strange goat-like antelopes and giant rodents.

As well as describing the remarkable way that Bate had "carved out a career as a scientist at a time when this was simply 'not the done thing' for women", Professor Schreve stressed how the discipline of zooarchaeology she had forged opened up questions that remain vital today.

"Our investigations still focus on the fundamental patterns of understanding environmental and climatic change, interpreting how fauna responded to climatic forcing and relating this to early human occupation, something which Dorothea pioneered," she said.

What she regretted was the lack of other female role models in the field: "Dorothea is a great example, but she is really the only one."

Upcoming lectures in the series will include Judith Hawley, director of graduate studies, looking back to the 18th century to explore the career of the classicist, poet and translator Elizabeth Carter (1717-1806); and Veronique Boisvert, lecturer in physics, honouring her mentor at Cornell University, Persis Drell, now director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center's National Accelerator Laboratory.

Professor Hall, who is hosting all the events, is also delivering the final lecture on 1 June. This will be devoted to Froma Zeitlin, former director of a programme in Judaic studies at Princeton University, who she described as "a major intellectual influence".

"She writes like an angel and the questions I've asked in my own research were radically influenced by my encounter with her work - although when I was at Oxford, I had a tutor who put her books on a blacklist and dismissed them as feminist gobbledegook," Professor Hall said.

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