Female science writers celebrated

A Royal Society discussion has considered the behind-the-scenes and often neglected roles that women have long played in the advancement of science.

March 15, 2015

Held on 10 March to tie in with International Women’s Day, “Women Writing Science” brought together three historians to explore and celebrate the major contributions made by women even at a time when the doors to universities, learned societies and laboratories were largely closed to them.

Patricia Fara, senior tutor in the philosophy of science at the University of Cambridge, considered their crucial place in communicating and translating science. Michael Faraday was “an example of a major scientist brought into science by a woman”, since he always stressed the life-changing impact on him of Jane Marcet’s 1805 book, Conversations on Chemistry, Intended More Especially for the Female Sex.

Isaac Newton was such a dull speaker he always ended up “lectur[ing] to the walls” and greatly needed others to popularise his ideas. One of the most important, explained Dr Fara, was Emilie du Châtelet, whose translation and commentary on his Principia Mathematica “played a crucial role in converting the French to Newtonianism”. His French counterpart, Pierre-Simon Laplace, in turn found an English champion and translator in Mary Somerville.

Emily Winterburn, visiting research fellow in science and religion at the University of Leeds, noted how an increasing stress on qualifications and the “wide but shallow” education typically given to girls tended to limit women’s participation in science in the 19th century to the roles of “assistant-organiser, a wife or sister who could use her broad non-specialist understanding of lots of areas”, “social facilitator” and “populariser”.

A striking example was Agnes Mary Clerke, who “effectively had a once-removed university education in mathematics and physics from her brother when he was studying at Dublin University” and went on to become “one of the most famous popularisers of astronomy of the 19th century”.

Although no women were elected to become fellows of the Royal Society until 1945, said Claire Jones, an honorary fellow at the University of Liverpool, this should not lead us to ignore “the participation of women operating at the margins: women publishing their science, but also participating in other ways”.

She cited the case of Rita Scott who, in the 1890s, pioneered the use of time-lapse photography to show “the opening of buds, pollination by a bee, the unravelling of a shoot and other manifestations of plant activity”. Yet because she “carried out her scientific work at home away from any institutional setting”, she and her peers were “often assigned the role of assistants to their husbands” and not recognised for their own contributions.

As a small step towards redressing the gender balance in the images of scientists on display at the Royal Society, the evening concluded with the unveiling of a new bust of Lucie Green, a Royal Society university research fellow based at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London.


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