Editorial Feature

It's Time To Remember The Forgotten Women Scientists of History

Broadly Editor Zing Tsjeng on filling in the gaps of history, inspired by her book series on Forgotten Women

Human curiosity has no limit. It’s what led Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin to look at the night sky to deduce the composition of its stars. It told Inge Lehmann to peer deep below the Earth’s crust to discover its solid innermost core. It diverted Ynés Mexía down the Amazon River to find new plant species. Curiosity is what steers great scientists and inventors to their discoveries; it is the theatre usher who shows them to their seats. It has no gender and no ethnicity. But the history of science remains curiously one-sided. You may know Einstein and Newton. I’m willing to bet you don’t know Payne-Gaposchkin, Lehmann, and Mexía.

The word “canon” is an interesting one – it implies a necessary reading list, if you will, of all the most important and canonical people you need to know. Einstein and Newton are part of the scientific canon. Payne-Gaposchkin, Lehmann, and Mexía are not. The implication is that the latter three are somehow extraneous; that their discoveries are somehow less relevant, less important, less meaningful.

You can quibble over those last few, but what you can’t say is that their discoveries were extraneous. All of them brought a fuller understanding of the world around us and its mechanics. In some cases, it even led to that most unique thing – an understanding of how to manipulate the world around us; to bend it to our will in the most sublime of ways.

Mikania antioquiensis var subcuneata BL Rob, found by Ynés Mexía (From the collection of The Natural History Museum)
Lise Meitner at the Lindau Meeting (From the collection of Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings)

In my book series, Forgotten Women – about the people who didn’t get into the canon – Payne-Gaposchkin, Lehmann and Mexía are just three of the 48 people in Forgotten Women: The Scientists. I picked 48 because, at the time of writing, only 48 women had ever won the Nobel Prize since its inception in 1901. Not that there were only 48 women in history who were deserving of a Nobel – far from it. In the book, there are at least three women who were, at least in my mind, robbed. Their stories tell us a lot about why women scientists have been overshadowed in the past.

Austrian Jewish physicist Lise Meitner survived the First World War and Nazi Germany while undertaking research that would lead to the discovery of nuclear fission – only to watch her lab partner Otto Hahn take credit for it. Chinese physicist Chien-Shiung Wu helped prove the theory of the radioactive process of beta decay, but was left out of her colleagues’ Nobel Prize win in 1957. Rosalind Franklin, an English X-ray crystallographer, took the image that led James Watson and Francis Crick to their Nobel-winning discovery of DNA’s double helix. Watson always maintained that Franklin should have shared the prize – unfortunately, the Nobel Committee does not award posthumous nods, and she had died four years previously.

Dr Chien-Shiung Wu by Gjon Mili (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

There are plenty of reasons why women like Meitner, Wu, and Franklin did not receive their due. It was not unusual for women’s credit to be rerouted to their male colleagues or superiors. Sometimes it took dying – in the case of Franklin – till their contributions were truly recognized. In some other cases, women were demoted to the role of assistants, as opposed to scientists in their own right. The Harvard Computers – a 19th century group of women who mapped the stars with pinpoint precision at the Harvard College Observatory – were viewed as nothing more than glorified data crunchers. They were even known as Pickering’s Harem, after the director who hired them.

In other cases, women were thwarted by the social and gender norms of their day. It wasn’t so long ago that some women were expected to step down after they got married, as in the case of the brilliant Australian physicist Ruby Payne-Scott, forced out of her job because legislation at the time decreed that women had to leave public service after marrying.

Unless you have a specific interest in science or women’s history, it is unlikely you would have known of the tragic end to Payne-Scott’s career or Wu’s thwarted Nobel dreams. But you should. The history of science is more than a roll call of accomplished men – there were always women involved. Sometimes they had to take on jobs as assistants or computers to get the experience or access they wanted. Sometimes they had to resort to deceit – 18th century mathematician Emilie du Chatelet dressed as a man so that she could talk equations with her male peers. But still, they were always there, despite the odds against them. As pioneering African-American cancer researcher Jane Cooke Wright put it: “A woman has to try twice as hard.”

Painting of Dr Jane Wright by Ernest T Crichlow (From the collection of DuSable Museum of African American History)
Portrait of Katherine Johnson (From the collection of NASA)

History is not just about being right-on or being an advocate for gender equality – it is also about being accurate. It is about being precise. It is about, well, a lot of things that science itself is about. How would you feel if a scientist left out half of their methodology? That’s what the history books are now trying to correct.

And I’m happy to report it feels as though the tide is slowly turning. The success of Hidden Figures – the biographical film about three female African-American mathematicians called the West Area Computers who worked at NASA during the Space Race – shows that there is a public appetite for stories about science that are inclusive and representative. In fact, it’s an appetite worth $235.9 million – a huge worldwide gross for a relatively small budget drama. But it’s not enough to merely read about these women like the West Area Computers – it’s about making sure that they enter the canon. We won’t have succeeded until people like Katherine Johnson or Mary Jackson – both computers at Langley – have become household names.

Dorothy Vaughan at NASA (From the collection of National Women's History Museum)
Mary Jackson, at NASA (From the collection of National Women's History Museum)

But the surest sign of change? When I began writing Forgotten Women, there were only 48 Nobel Prize winners who were women. In a single year, that number jumped to 51. Two of those awards were given to female scientists – Frances H. Arnold for chemistry, and Donna Strickland for physics. When Strickland was notified of her win, she said: “We need to celebrate women physicists because we’re out there, and hopefully in time it’ll start to move forward at a faster rate. I’m honored to be one of those women.”

Portrait of Francis Arnold (From the collection of National Inventors Hall of Fame Museum)
Words by Zing Tsjeng
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