People of Science: Alice Lee

The Royal Society

Alice Lee (1859-1939)
Second to left on the picture, Lee was a mathematician, and one of the first women to become Doctor of Science at University of London in 1901. She conducted most of her research in a laboratory dedicated to the statistical study of people's physical and behavioral characteristics headed by Pr. Karl Pearson (1857-1936). 
In 1884, Alice Lee was the first woman to obtain a Bachelor in Science from the newly founded Bedford College for Women. Set up at 47 Bedford Square in London, the college was the first higher education institution for women in the UK. Ironically, Lee met her mentor Karl Pearson, because he criticised the academic standards at Bedford College. 
Support of Karl Pearson FRS
Alice Lee's doctoral supervisor was a leading biostatistician who founded UCL 's Department of Applied Statistics. His statistical studies in support of eugenics are crucial to understand the context of her work. 

In this letter addressed to the Royal Society Assistant Secretary, Pearson submits a paper by Alice Lee. Pearson insists that Lee be recognised as sole author:

'I want the paper treated as hers, presented by me; for in the matter of editing I have hardly done more than any professor does for a research student working in his laboratory'.

In fact, his support of female researchers went far beyond that of any other contemporary professors.

In 1901, Lee published as first author 'A first study of the correlation of the human skull' in the Royal Society journal of Mathematical and Physical sciences (Philosophical Transactions A).

As noted by Pearson in the introduction, the study summarised her doctoral work on skull capacity.

The traditional method used to determine skull capacity relied on pouring sand or shots into the skull. Before Lee, craniometry was therefore mainly conducted on skeletons - as with this famous skull of Robert the Bruce studied by Pearson and Galton which was recently digitally reconstructed by a team of scientists.

Alice Lee was instrumental in developing mathematical formulae to determine skull capacity of living individuals and perform statistical analysis.

Controversially, she collected skull measurements from her direct academic circle (from male professors and female students), but also from people of various ethnic origins mostly using archeological collections.

Lee's doctoral work was examined by the leading Victorian statistician: Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911), FRS.

A promoter of eugenics, Galton was particularly interested in hereditary traits and defined in statistical terms the concept of 'correlation'. Despite granting her the doctoral title, Galton disagreed with Lee's findings, considering that women's inferiority to men should be verified by skull capacity.

The groundbreaking aspect of Lee's research was to demonstrate that there was no direct correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence. This was a first step towards proving scientifically the intellectual equality between genders and ethnicities. 

During WW1, Alice Lee joined the Munitions Invention department of the Ministry of Munitions and performed computer work for the Admiralty.

As for many women workers, little is known of her contribution to the ministry, except that she mainly calculated bullet trajectories. In a petition to the Home Office to grant her a pension, Pearson (top right on the picture) wrote: 'few, if any, woman workers of her period have accomplished as large as bulk of first class research as Dr. Lee'.

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