Trailblazing Fellows

Discover how women gained entry to the Royal Society Fellowship

Discover the secret histories of the first women to become Fellows of the Royal Society. Be inspired by their inventiveness, tenacity and innovations through the Royal Society collections.

LIFE Photo Collection

Royal Society Fellows

Before the early twentieth century, no formal barriers to Fellowship existed, but women had to wait until 1945 to first be elected Fellow of the Royal Society. The steps taken towards women's inclusion and recognition by the Society throughout the twentieth century reflect the evolution of western science more generally. 

Frontispiece and Title Page of journal from Japan by Marie Stopes (1910) by Marie Charlotte Carmichael Stopes (1880-1958)The Royal Society

In the acknowledgements to her account of travels to Japan as a palaeobotanist, Marie Stopes (1880-1958) commented that:

The generous interest and help of the Royal Society in my scientific projects made this long and expensive journey possible.

Although the Royal Society did not elect women as Fellows, it offered support for women scientists with grants for research and travel.

Hertha Ayrton (1906) by James Russell & SonsThe Royal Society

The physicist, engineer and mathematician Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923) had research published by the Royal Society and was suitably qualified to be a candidate for Fellowship.

A friend of Marie Skłodowska Curie (1867-1934), Ayrton also campaigned for women's vote.

Royal Society Fellowship election proposal for Phoebe Sarah Hertha Ayrton (1854 -1923) (1902) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

In 1902, Hertha Ayrton was proposed for election to the Fellowship for her ground-breaking experimental work on electricity.

Her candidacy gathered support from a long list of Fellows.

Legal advice sought by the Royal Society council regarding female candidates for fellowship. Legal advice sought by the Royal Society council regarding female candidates for fellowship. (1902)The Royal Society

With an eminently qualified female candidate for election, the Royal Society sought out legal advice on the eligibility of women to the Fellowship.

Hertha Ayrton was rejected on legal grounds, in part because she was married. Although the Society had the option of amending its Charter to allow women entry, it did not.

Radium - cartoon of Marie and Pierre Curie in the lab (Vanity Fair) (1904) by Julius Mendes Price (1857-1924)The Royal Society

This caricature foregrounds Pierre Curie (1859-1906) posed with radium as the Statue of Liberty. Marie Skłodowska Curie rests a hand on his shoulder.

Despite the award of not one, but two Nobel Prizes, Marie Skłodowska Curie was not made a Fellow of the Royal Society. The couple was awarded the Society’s Davy Medal in 1903.

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Marjory Stephenson (1945) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

The campaign for the admission of women into the Royal Society Fellowship ended successfully upon the election of Kathleen Lonsdale née Yardley (1903-1971) and Marjory Stephenson (1885-1948) in 1945.

Marjory Stephenson was a distinguished biochemist specialist of the metabolism of bacteria who had written over 20 scientific articles and essential textbooks for her field.

Portrait of Marjory Stephenson (1945) by Walter Stoneman (1876 - 1958)The Royal Society

She was a pioneer in her field of chemical microbiology and an influential teacher.

Royal Society Fellowship election certificate for Kathleen Lonsdale (1945) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Kathleen Lonsdale was an exceptional crystallographer. Fascinated by patterns, she used the latest X-ray techniques to reveal the structure of crystals.

Portrait of Kathleen Lonsdale (1945) by Walter Stoneman (1876 - 1958)The Royal Society

Lonsdale served as the first female Vice-President of the Royal Society between 1960 and 1961.
She was also the first woman President of the International Union of Crystallography, and of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hear her explain what crystallography actually is in this 1965 interview.

Nobel Prize certificate for Dorothy Hodgkin (1964)The Royal Society

Another illustrious early female Fellow is Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994). Working in the footsteps of Kathleen Lonsdale, Hodgkin devoted her career to crystallography, deciphering the structure of steroid, of the penicillin and of the vitamin B12 for which she received the Nobel Prize.

Listen to her describe completing the structure of penicillin in her own voice, in this interview for the Biochemical Society at the age of 82.
See her full interview here.

The Royal Society collections have received wonderful archives from our female Fellows, visit our Library and Archives to discover their ground-breaking work.

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