SHE-LOGY: Women in Science
One of the women featured in SHE-LOGY Vol.2 is is the groundbreaking scientist named Rosalind Franklin (in Rosalind Jerrie Mary). She was one of the well-known examples of a female scientist who was not duly credited for her accomplishments. Apparently, this happens on many occasions to many women in science, there’s actually a name for it.
The Matilda Effect. It is named after the women’s rights activist Matilda Joslyn Gage, who first noticed at the end of 19th century that women were not properly recognized for their accomplishments in science. That probably explains why I can only recall one female scientist I learned from school — Marie Curie. Bent on proving that this is just a matter of faulty memory on my part, I went on to Google “greatest scientists of all time”. Of the 51 profiles that Google headlines on the results page, there were only two women. Yep, same two women I mentioned above.
This post is dedicated to the women in science, particularly those whose names were never written in history and science books, despite their crucial contributions, because the credit was awarded to someone else.
CECILIA PAYNE-GAPOSCHKIN (1900-1979)
Cecilia was said to be the most eminent female astronomer of all time. “Female” seems to be the key word because if you search for the greatest astronomers, her name doesn’t come up. But once you learn about her achievement, you will soon question why her name is not as celebrated as Marie Curie.
Cecilia was a 25-year old doctoral candidate at Harvard when she wrote her Ph.D. dissertation, where she established that hydrogen, the lightest of the elements, was the most abundant substance in the sun, the stars and accordingly the universe. When the astronomer Henry Norris Russell reviewed her thesis, he dismissed it as “impossible” and convinced her to tone it down into a less definitive statement that would be more in line with the conventional thinking of the day.
Four years later, Russell, using a different approach, reached the same conclusion, which he published. He did acknowledge Cecilia in his paper, briefly. But it was Russell who got credited for it.
Cecilia’s thesis was later on described as “undoubtedly the most brilliant Ph.D. thesis ever written in astronomy”. Her findings has since become the basis for analysis of the cosmos.
The late Harvard biochemistry scientist Jeremy Knowles perhaps summarized her noted – but often unheralded — achievements the best when he wrote: “Every high school student knows that Isaac Newton discovered gravity, that Charles Darwin discovered evolution, and that Albert Einstein discovered the relativity of time. But when it comes to the composition of our universe [the contributions of Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin], the textbooks simply say that the most abundant atom in the universe is hydrogen. And no one ever wonders how we know.”
LISE MEITNER (1878-1968)
In the weeks that I researched on female scientists and The Matilda Effect, Lise’s name always comes up. Once I read her story, I finally understood why she’s a top contender for this phenomenon.
Lise was a physicist whose works on radioactivity and nuclear physics led to the discovery of nuclear fission –that atomic nuclei can split in two– which became the foundation for the atomic bomb. However, in 1945, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Otto Hahn for such discovery.
Why was she snubbed? Was it because of gender? Lise’s case was more complex than that. She wasn’t just a woman, she was also an Austrian and a Jewish at a time when the Nazi annexed Austria. This meant:
- She had to give up her post as acting director of the Institute for Chemistry, and eventually forced to flee Berlin, leaving behind the research projects that she and the chemist Otto Hahn had been working together.
- She was then reported to the Nazi authorities by another chemist (politics and probably jealousy), so instead of an appointment in the Netherlands, she ended up in Sweden.
- In order to continue working with Hahn, they had to secretly meet in Copenhagen. Through letters, Lise continued to provide insights for Hahn. It was her who gave the first theoretical explanation of the fission process.
- While it was Hahn who performed the experiments that proved nuclear fission, he was unable to explain it and sought Lise for a “fantastic explanation”.
- It was Lise and her nephew Otto Frisch that came up with a theory that explained nuclear fission. The duo even coined the term “nuclear fission”.
- Hahn went on to publish their findings, that eventually led to the Nobel Prize, without Lise’s name as co-author. Some claimed that this omission was out of Hahn’s intent to protect her from the Nazi.
In her lifetime, Lise was the recipient of numerous awards, including 3 nominations to the Nobel Prize and a recognition from Einstein as the “German Marie Curie”.
NETTIE STEVENS (1861-1912)
Nettie was a geneticist whose greatest contribution was her research that became instrumental to determining that an organism’s sex was dictated by its chromosomes rather than environmental or other factors.
However, the prominent geneticist Thomas Hunt Morgan was the first to write a genetics textbook and was later on credited for discovery. It was said that Morgan was asking Nettie for details of her experiments.
Nettie was the first to recognize that females have two large sex chromosomes. Wilson did not see this because he only performed tests on the testis, because eggs are too fatty for the old staining procedures. Wilson even reissued his original paper and thanked Nettie for this finding. This finding is what then allowed Wilson to combine his idea of idiochromosomes with her heterosomes. This shows that Stevens was very influential in this process. Most biology textbooks credit Morgan for mapping the first gene locations onto chromosomes of fruit flies, but what is often missed is that it was Nettie who brought the fruit fly into Morgan’s lab in the first place. (Source: Wikipedia)
On her death, Morgan wrote about her in Science (magazine), which somehow implied that what Nettie contributed were details to a broader view (that he came up with?). Was he referring to himself as the lone specialist on the topic??
“Modern cytological work involves an intricacy of detail, the significance of which can be appreciated by the specialist alone; but Miss Stevens had a share in a discovery of importance, and her work will be remembered for this, when the minutiae of detailed investigations that she carried out have become incorporated in the general body of the subject.”
SHE-LOGY is a blog project open to everyone who is interested to celebrate women this whole month of March. If you’re reading this, I extend that invitation to you to contribute post/s about the women you’d like to honor. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for reading this.