Women in Science
Part 1: A Brief History of Women in Science
Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology is subtitled, "The Lives and Achievements of 1510 Great Scientists from Ancient Times to the Present, Chronologically Arranged."
Only fourteen of these great scientists were women.
You could quibble, of course, about who to leave in and who to leave out of a work like this, but there is no getting around the fact that women as a group have not made a very large contribution to the world's store of knowledge about science and technology.
Not yet. In our lifetime things are changing fast.
In the second part of this program we will introduce you to some outstanding young women scientists of today. For this part of the program, let's take a brief look at the past- the history of women in science. Let's find out why there has been so little history of women in science. And finally, let's speculate about what it might be like tomorrow for women in science, and in fact, for science itself!
For as we shall see, the explosive entrance of women into science today, after so many centuries of exclusion, may be important not only for the men and women involved, but also for the nature of the scientific enterprise itself.
It is not that there have been no outstanding women of science in the past. In every scientific field, from astronomy to nuclear physics, from anthropology to computer design, a few pioneering women have achieved a great deal. And they have done so in the face of extreme prejudice, and often scorn, from their contemporaries both within and outside the scientific world.
Today most people are not aware of some of these pioneers. Women like Caroline Herschell, for instance. Along with her brother William Herschell, this brilliant German-English astronomer made major contributions to the science of astronomy around the time of the American Revolution.
She and her brother lived here in Bath, England where he was an organist and she was a concert singer. Both gave up promising musical careers, however, to follow the stars of astronomy.
Together they made the finest telescopes ever made up to that time. More important, they were able to use these beautiful handmade instruments to discover a new planet, Uranus. And most important of all they were able to see and to classify so many new stars that our view of the universe itself was enlarged a millionfold.
Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo first taught us that the earth was not standing still at the center of the universe. Earth was one planet among many, all of them revolving around a central sun.
It was Caroline and William Herschell who taught us that this solar system was not the center of the universe either! Instead our all-important sun was only one star among many millions of stars in a much larger system-the Milky Way Galaxy.
At about this same time, an aristocratic woman in France was helping to launch the modern science of chemistry on its revolutionary ways. When she was only fourteen years old, Marie Anne Lavoisier married the man generally credited to be the founder of the modern science of chemistry- Antoine Lavoisier.
While Antoine Lavoisier is universally recognized as a great pioneer in science, it is not well known that his wife, Marie-Anne, was his most important scientific associate. She was the one who took his notes, assisted in most of his experiments, translated scientific papers for him and illustrated his books.
Maria Mitchell was the first American woman to make a name for herself in the sciences in the middle of the nineteenth century. She first caught the attention of the scientific world by discovering a new comet from her observatory on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts. She later became professor of astronomy at newly founded Vassar College, and devoted the rest of her life to improving opportunities for women in the sciences.
By far the most famous woman scientist of all time was this poor turn-of-the-century Polish woman, Marie Sklodowska (better know by her married name, Marie Curie). She was the only woman to win two Nobel Prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry.
Here she is shown just after her marriage in Paris to the French chemist, Pierre Curie. Characteristically, rather than buying wedding rings and wedding dresses, they bought a pair of bicycles for their honeymoon trip.
Together Marie and Pierre Curie worked in this small garage laboratory in Paris to investigate the newly discovered phenomenon known as radioactivity. In fact, it was Marie Curie who coined the name "radioactivity." '
Unlike the Hershells and the Lavoisiers, it was the woman member of the partnership, Marie, who led the way into this new scientific world of radioactivity. Her husband Pierre later joined in her pioneering work and together they discovered two new elements, polonium (which she named for her native country) and radium.
Tragically, the young Pierre Curie was killed by a horse drawn carriage in Paris in 1906. Marie carried on the work alone, receiving her second Nobel Prize in 1911.
Besides her scientific work and fame, Marie Curie gave much of herself to humanitarian concerns. During the First World War she left her science laboratory to become an ambulance driver. Later, in a tour of the United States, she was welcomed everywhere as a scientist, a humanitarian and a role model for women in science.
Marie Curie died of leukemia probably caused by the overexposure to radioactive rays in her scientific work. One of her daughters, Irene Joliet-Curie, went on to herself become a famous scientist, and to win a Nobel Prize in 1935, just a years after her mother died. Her other daughter, Eve Curie, became a famous writer.
Despite Marie Curie's fame she too suffered often from the prejudice against women in science. Even at the height of her fame, when nominated for membership in the French Academy, she was rejected because she was a woman.
As Marie Curie was the first scientist to talk of atomic "radioactivity," another woman physicist was the first to talk of atomic "fission"- that is, the radical breakdown of certain heavy atoms that makes possible nuclear power.
Despite extreme prejudices in her home country, Lise Meitner became the second woman to ever earn a doctors degree in science at the University of Austria. She went on to play a key role in the discovery of nuclear fission in the 1930s.
She and her colleagues Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin, Germany, were the first scientific team to investigate and discover that the heavy element uranium could break apart when bombarded with neutrons and in the breaking apart release awesome amounts of energy.
In one of the most exciting cloak-and-dagger stories of our century, the Jewish physicist Lise Meitner was smuggled out of Nazi Germany in 1938 and became a key player in getting the news of these nuclear fission experiments out of Germany and into England and the United States just before World War II.
A woman scientist was also a key player in the most dramatic breakthrough in biology in the twentieth century. In 1962 the Nobel Prize in medicine and physiology was won by Francis Crick, James Watson and Maurice Wilkins for their work in unravelling the structure of DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid- the biochemical center of life.
The prize would have had four recipients that year and the fourth would have been Rosalind Franklin, for she was the one who took the first clear x ray diffraction photos of DNA-photos that gave one of the key clues to deciphering the DNA structure. Unfortunately, she could not receive the prize and the acclaim because she died prematurely only four years earlier of cancer.
Another Nobel Prize winner in a related biochemical field is the American biophysicist, Rosalyn Sussman Yalow. She shared in the 1977 Nobel Prize for physiology and medicine for precedent setting work she and her colleagues did on using radioactive isotopes to detect very tiny amounts of biologically active substances.
These are just a few examples of women who have been outstandingly successful in science. The number could be multiplied a hundredfold but still we would be forced to conclude that, compared to men in science, the total numbers are small and the total of scientific achievements are modest.
Why has this been so?
The answer to this question is hardly a mystery to historians, sociologists and psychologists.
Women have not been in the forefront of science because of massive discrimination against women in science for centuries past. And not only in science, of course, but in just about all political, economic and social worlds of achievement.
Jean Jacques Rousseau, a famous philosopher of the time of Caroline Herschell and Marie Ann Lavoisier (and a philosopher considered an early advocate of progressive ideas in education) was unfortunately reflecting common opinion of the day when he wrote that "a woman of education is the plague of her husband, her children, her family, her servants-everybody! "
Even a liberal French philosopher and priest, one who wrote a book promoting the "education of girls" a few years earlier, claimed that "girls had no need of much of the knowledge that men possess ... it is enough if one day they know how to rule the household and obey the husband without arguing about it."
Despite this outrageously unfair history, the amazing thing is that so many women did manage to get an education. The amazing thing is that so many women did manage to become nurses, pilots, writers, doctors, philosophers and scientists.
Consider! It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that college and graduate school education became even minimally available to women. Oberlin College was the first college to admit women in 1832. Harvard Medical School did not have a woman student until 1945!
The struggle to find a place in science, of course, has always been only one part of a greater struggle for equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities in all fields. It was only a few decades ago that the brave women called suffragettes led the way in getting women the right to vote.
Besides the open discrimination, the images held up in the popular media, yesterday and today, have long played a crucial role in limiting the range of women's achievements.
While men are shown in many roles, jobs and professions, women, until very recently, have been assigned severely limited roles.
In science, even when women were permitted to study and enter the professions, they were often forced to work in the less prestigious and the less challenging jobs, colleges and laboratories.
Only when labor shortages became critical in major wars were women allowed to take the kind of mechanical and engineering jobs that men had always monopolized in the past.
Many scientists of yesterday (and a few still today) place some of the blame for the historically meager scientific production of women on the claim that there is a genetic difference in men's and women's capacities for mathematical, spatial and scientific thought. The vast majority of modern psychologists, however, would deny this to be so.
If the past of women in science has been disheartening, the present is encouraging. Today, much is changing. And compared to the glacial pace of past decades and centuries this modern change is coming very fast indeed. Some would say it is no exaggeration to call it a revolution not only in society but in science itself.
One of the more startling theories now being explored by a few women and men in the forefront of this change has to do with the very nature of the scientific enterprise itself. In other words once women begin to enter whole heartedly and wholeheadedly into science, science itself will change.
These philosophers of science and women's studies claim that sexual prejudice has been built right into the very structure of modern western science. This sexism has not only hurt women, it has grossly distorted our views of the physical and biological universe.
For instance, as just one example, the accepted scientific view of DNA sees it as a "master molecule" which governs the cell's activities. This is not as objectively scientific as it sounds, claim these critics. Could it not be instead that this way of looking at the scientific question is itself a reflection of the male-dominant culture from which the theory comes?
A truly non-sexist view might see DNA not as a "master" but rather as only one part of a cooperating, interdependent, ecologically complete whole. This way of viewing DNA, as a matter of fact, is surprisingly close to the one the most recent Nobel Prize winning woman, the biologist Barbara McClintock, proposed some years ago.
Thus, say these critics, once women do become equal to men in science as well as in society, we can expect to see the very nature of science itself change as much as the sex ratios of its practitioners.
Only a minority of women and men in science would agree with that radical critique, but just about everyone in science would agree that you are going to see a lot of changes in your lifetime. Especially and most certainly in the achievements of women in science.
With fifty percent of the human race now joining the quest, how could it be otherwise?
Let's take a look in Part Two of this program at how a few of the new scientists are faring today.
Part 2: Women in Science Today
Sally Ride: former NASA astronaut, the first woman in space.
Carol Baker: Microbiologist with Monsanto Chemical Corp.
Emma Earl: Computer Technician with IBM.
Kate Dykema: Certified Nurse-Midwife.
Regina Murphy: Chemical Engineer at University of Wisconsin.
Brenda Faison: Mycologist at Oak Ridge Institute for Environmental Studies.
You have just met six pioneers in science and technology today. As you hear from them you will note that working in science and technology today can mean searching for new knowledge as a research scientist. It can also mean finding a satisfying career in applying science and technology to human purposes. Becoming, for instance, a laboratory technician, a model builder or a computer expert; a doctor, an engineer or a nurse-midwife; a welder, an automobile mechanic, or an astronaut. The opportunities multiply without end.
Let's hear what some women who have gone into some of these fields have to say about their life and work.
What did you like best about being an astronaut?
"Of course, the thing I like most about the job is being in orbit for a week. The reason that people go into the astronaut program is to get chance to be in space. ... Everybody on the crew's got a job, and everybody has someone they depend on to do that job. It takes us a year of training for everybody to find their place and form a team out of the individual astronauts. . ..Being in the shuttle, being in weightlessness, in orbit is a unique experience. It's difficult to describe. And the view looking back at the earth is spectacular."
Emma Earl is more down to earth in her work for IBM, installing and repairing computers and computer systems. We asked her to describe a typical day:
"After service calls from the night before I know I have made a commitment to fix their computer, so I'm on my way. If I get a store that's down, I have to call customers and reschedule with them and go where I'm most needed. A lot of times you could stay all day with a problems...
"I really love what I do. That's why I try to foresee things that might happen so I don't get into multiple situations that cause a lot of problems."
How can you tell when things might go wrong with a computer, before they go wrong?
"Experience working with the same systems. When I go in to clean machines I run diagnostics. You hear noises, you hear things that you know aren't normal. So you take a look at it to see if the noise is going to cause trouble, see if its something that's real. Usually it is real-like a hard drive. You can listen to a hard drive and tell if it's going to die. Or you can hear the fan. You hear if that's going to quit. If fan quits on any kind of computer, it's cooling all the cards. Once the fan quits, then, the cards heat up and that could destroy the whole thing."
Have you ever felt discriminated against as a woman?
"When I first started I did. I found that men I worked with didn't feel I was hired for expertise. Didn't think I'd be able to catch on. Thought the company just needed another woman or a minority. Once I got out there and did the work, I turned that around. I don't have that problem any more."
Physics and engineering, space and computers, are fields being entered by women. The same thing is true in biology and medicine, health and disease. For many centuries women have been helping other women give birth. Today this profession of midwifery has a new twist as young women like Kate Dykema become scientifically trained as certified nurse-midwives:
What do you think has caused the medical profession to begin to want and to accept midwives?
"A lot of changes in the last say twenty to forty years in terms of the consumer being very demanding and articulate about wanting birth not to be treated as such a sterile, sick process. The consumer is always someone who can force the system to change over the years even though it take a long time. Women have been speaking out wanting child birth to be much more a natural process. Finally the hospitals are getting on the boat and trying to make their units much more friendly and home like. They are a lot more open to people having flexibility in their childbirth but also providing them with a safe birth."
You are a certified nurse-midwife. What does that mean?
"You become a nurse first. Get a bachelor's degree in nursing. Go on in your training to specialize and get a masters degree and become a certified nurse midwife. Basically my training to be a certified nurse midwife is very scientific. I have pretty much the same training as most OBGYNs in terms of women's low risk health issues around child birth and early checkups, women's health care."
How did you get into this field?
"For me, I had special inspiration to go into midwifery. I will speak about that a little because I think everyone is different. There may be different reasons. I was studying dance, loved to dance, wanted to be a dancer. I was teaching dance and trying to make a living and not making a very good living. Then I met a woman from Denmark who was a midwife. I took a class from her at a continuing education program that sounded interesting. I was very inspired. One of the reasons was because I love to work with people. Another reason that inspired me is because I have always loved birth. I have seen lots of animals have babies and worked on dairy farms and watched cows, helped cows have babies. I was fascinated by that. It just seemed like a wonderful thing to do for me. So that's how I got into it."
What do you like best about your work?
"What I like best about my work is the incredible richness in my relationships that I have with my families I work with. That richness is able to happen because of this extended amount of time I spend with my pregnant couples and families. Often times their children are coming to their visits. The rapport I have with people is very special to me. It is very rewarding to be invited in to be a part of somebody's birth and be able to participate in that incredibly special time for that family."
Carol Baker is a research microbiologist with the Monsanto Company in St. Louis, Missouri. Her latest research assignment combines chemistry, biology, economics, engineering, agriculture and environmental health.
Aren't there some chemicals that the farmer could use to destroy this fungus?
"There aren't any good chemicals to deal with these fungal diseases. Fungi are very much like us, which means they have the same cell structure as we do, the same kind of ribosomes and things like that. These are all integral parts of the cell so if you try to treat these diseases with chemicals they have a tendency to be toxic for humans and animals as well."
But you say that there are bacteria that will kill the fungus?
"The problem was nobody knew how to get them to the farmer. Farmers don't have little culture facilities or places to grow bacteria in their barns. They are not designed that way. People who make chemicals are not used to handling something that is alive so they can package things, make them, formulate them into things that will sit on the shelf for years but not if it's a living bug. So what we did is try to design a delivery system for these bacteria. We have a patent on it. We developed a whole new kind of encapsulation technology which is a way of wrapping these bacteria up and protecting them so that they can go into a package and be sent out to a distributorship and given to a farmer and allow the farmers to actually put them in their farm equipment."
What do they look like, these encapsulated bacteria?
"I brought a little sample of these beads. Here they are. They flow and move about. You can imagine them going into a feed hopper or fertilizer hopper that can go along behind the tractor and deliver them. What you have are living microbes that have been made dormant so that they can sit on the shelf for a while, and they will go in with the seed and protect the plant from the disease."
Have you felt discrimination because you are a woman?
"I think any woman who goes into a professional field feels like they have to try harder to be in the same place. You have to. If you do something twice as good it's perceived about the same as the average man. That's not universally true. I have run into people who are prejudiced about having a woman in science. People when I was in working at night would tell me I should be home taking care of my husband. I told them he was perfectly capable of taking care of himself, an adult. I have a little girl six now. When I was pregnant people told me I couldn't possibly come back to work after baby because I'd have to stay home to take care of her. In our family it doesn't work that way. My husband stayed home and took care of our baby and I came back to work. It works differently for different people. I've run into some awful, bigoted people-hate use that word- people who tried to make life difficult for me. Most of the people who were very bigoted against a woman in science were very easy to get around. I found people who think that way really don't think very deeply. If you keep an open mind and try to do what needs to be done and ignore that stuff, nine times out of ten you can get around those people. I love being a scientist. It's a wonderful career."
Science today is a mansion with many rooms. And they all are connected. Regina Murphy is a chemical engineer who left her job in an oil refinery to use her chemical engineering skills to search for the secrets needed to cue diseases like AIDS, cancer, and Alzheimer's Disease.
Could you briefly describe a typical day?
"I have a number of graduate student working in my lab. What I do in a typical day might be to work in my lab, do actual experiments. A big piece of my job is to work with my grad students and plan what kind of experiments we want to do. Then we have to figure out once we've done it, what does it all mean? So, in fact, actual experiments don't take most of the time. It's figuring out what you're doing, how you're going to do it, then what does it all mean when you're done. That might involved some time in the library looking up various articles so I understand better what's been done before."
How did you get into this field?
"I fell into it. When I was in high school I wanted to be either a writer of journalist. Then talking to a friend she said 'You're really good at chemistry and math.' I thought, well, maybe I am. No one had told me I was, but actually I was probably better at that than English. So when applying to college I got lots of brochures from different colleges sent to me. I got one from MIT which I'd never thought of going to. I thought, well, I'll apply there but won't get in. But then I got in and said, OK, I'll go for a year and flunk out and go to some other school. But I didn't flunk out. When I got there it was mostly a science and technology university. I was kind of interested in chemistry. I didn't know what an engineer was at all, had no idea. My father was a high school teacher and he didn't know what an engineer was either. I took a class my freshman year in chemical engineering and I loved it. It was really fun and I saw it as something practical, useful that also involved a lot of the skills I like the chemistry, physics, math, the whole combination. It wasn't esoteric or so far removed from anything that was part of daily life. It really was all about real things that people use every day."
Every scientific challenge has many sides. A scientist working on one side of modern pollution problems is Dr. Brenda Faison of the Oak Ridge Institute for Environmental Studies. She is working on how to break down wood for making paper in an environmentally healthy way. She describes how she goes about it.
We asked Dr. Faison if she had any advice to give to a beginner in science.
"Believe in yourself. Don't give up. The most important thing is to remember you wouldn't have got this far if you weren't any good. This includes having made it out of the third grade. What's important for youth in general, girls in particular and black people especially to know, is that you can do anything that occurs to you. If I can do this, definitely anyone else can. No, there's nothing unusual about me. I'm just a regular little colored girl from outside Cleveland. Now I'm a microbiologist too, and a good one. And I'll be a better one."