, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Tonight represented my first bloggable adventure this week (another expected on Thursday). This one was a Pub Science special for Ada Lovelace Day. Normally the compére is a very Paolo-shaped bloke but, on this occasion, the mic was handed over to Rebekah Higgitt of the Royal Museum, Greenwich. On a day dedicated to raising awareness of women in STEM industries, why have a man explain it?

Rebekah had an interesting approach to the subject of mentors in science: she had an anti mentor in the form of a sister who was a scientist. The experience led her away from her initial interest in science and towards becoming an historian. Her work is centred around the Observatory and, although there are women in the field, there has been no female Astronomer Royal to this day.

And so, with a brief threat of H. G. Wells-esque justice for over-runs, the evening was under way.

A disclaimer: I apologise in advance if I give more room to the biologists and palaeontologists. It is a natural inclination that I shall consciously fight.


First up was Beulah Garner, one of the curators for London’s Natural History Museum. Beulah cut her teeth poking dead pigs on the family farm in Norfolk, studying the effects of progressive decomposition – a subject dear to me on an artistic level. She talked about some fascinating expeditions to Tanzania, in which she visited previously unexplored places and met natives who had never seen a white person before. She seemed so strange to them that they kept wiping her skin – convinced she was “black underneath”. She spoke of joining the faculty of the Museum and finding herself in a world of men. Often her only female companions were long deceased collectors of the specimens.

Collectors such as Margaret Fountaine Neimy, a butterfly specialist who collected from 60 countries in 50 years. Her collection can be found today in Norwich Castle. Margaret fell in love with her courier. They travelled together, keeping the nature of their relationship a secret, for 28 years.

Then there is Evelyn Cheesman: a woman who wanted to be a vet at a time when the Royal Veterinary College weren’t accepting women applicants. She worked at the butterfly house at London Zoo instead and ended up donating 70,000 specimens to the Natural History Museum. In Papua New Guinea they nicknamed her “The Woman who Walks” because she was the only white woman they’d met who didn’t get carried about by sedan chair. To this day over 200 species are named after her.

Beulah came away from studying these women thinking: ‘if they can do it in harsher times than these, then so can I’.

World War One Munitions

Claire Benson, Explosions and Munitions Researcher at South Bank University, was up second. Her talk focused on the paradigm shift that took place during the First World War. In the late 19th Century, the feeling that science was a man’s domain, was so strong that one professor of Edinborough led a riot protesting against the idea of women studying science.

I would like to add, at this point, that this was by no means an isolated case: the tour of Dublin’s Trinity College proudly tells visitors about the provost George Salmon who, in 1904, declared that “over my dead body will women enter this college”… and promptly died a month before the first woman was enrolled.

The war came and all the men were being sent to the front. Britain found herself with a great quantity of post-empire raw materials and a lot of empty laboratories. Women were enlisted as chemists on the understanding that their contract was only valid “for the duration of hostilities”. One such woman is Agnes Conway who, though made redundant after the war, was kept on in a lesser capacity. She is also responsible for collating much of the data used in the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Women at War’ exhibit. By 1915 you would be lucky to find one male member of staff in the lab – all the rest were women.

A more tragic tale is that of Clara Haber, wife of Fritz Haber. Mrs Haber was a gifted chemist in her own right but her ability to realise that potential was cut short due to the work her husband was doing: Mr Haber basically took an old idea (flinging diseased pigs over enemy lines) and brought it up to date. He proposed passing a gas cloud of chlorine across the enemy’s trenches, thus eliminating the need to fight them. The night before his plan was put into action Mrs Haber shot herself with her husband’s revolver.

Also mentioned was Phyllis Mckie, who devised a new method of preparing Tetranitromethane and Mary Engell Pennington, who did physiological chemistry with Mendel and helped invent refrigeration trucks. It has been suggested that our natural resources from the empire and our chemically trained women were a major contributing factor in our women the First World War. As a person who loves the “what if” history game, it is fun to speculate what would have happened as a knock-on effect to the present day if things hadn’t played out the way they did in this respect.


Rachel Jennings, a palaeontologist for the Horniman Museum, gave a very good talk on female role models in her field. It is hard to talk about the role of women in science generally without mentioning Mary Anning. Even harder when being so specific. As Rachael points out, there are a good number of practicing palaeontologists, they just aren’t the ones that get the media air time. Even if there were more to choose from, Mary Anning makes a very good candidate for a day like this: born into an era in which Cuvier had only recently demonstrated extinction and the age of the earth was only just starting to be questioned, Mary was mounting one of the earliest detailed expeditions into deep time. She didn’t have it easy: financially providing for the family from the age of eleven, prospecting the cliffs in the most constricting dresses, she: studied the first ichthyosaur; found the first plesiosaur; found the first pterosaur outside of Germany; made huge advances in our understanding of coprology… and all the specimens were described by men. Upon her death, the Geological Society published an obituary but, during her life, she was not permitted to join.

The Feminisation of Madness

Elizabeth Baxter was up next, discussing the simultaneous 19th century emergence of psychiatry and gynaecology. She explained that the early view of female genitalia was as an under-developed, imperfect version of a man’s.

Meanwhile psychiatry was establishing femininity itself as a pathology – that a woman needed no extra reason for going insane besides being a woman. Hysteria was the diagnosis du jour, with causal explanations that varied from malnourishment to spoiling, depending on the class of the patient being submitted.

At this point an observation was made by the audience that the research seemed to be led so much by the values of the day that surely they should have been able to see it. It was suggested by others that it is easier to see values leading research in hindsight than it is at the time – and that there may be similar influences today that will seem obvious to future generations. One suggested contemporary example was that money leads research today. Personally I’m not sure that’s a new bias, nor do I see it changing any time soon.

Other conditions besides hysteria were identified: ‘Puerperal insanity’, which today we would call ‘postnatal depression’, was treated with an awful lot more sympathy than many of its sufferers feel today. When Elizabeth was interviewing postnatal depression patients, many of them said they couldn’t share how bad they felt with their husbands, families, or GP. They expressed a feeling of failure as a woman and a mother. The Victorians recognised, perhaps better than we do, what a huge ordeal childbirth is.

World War 1 saw the introduction of a number of male mental maladies: shell shock was one. Over zealous masturbation was another. While there is nothing intrinsically male about these conditions, the western world was not ready to put women in front line fighting positions, nor was it overly keen on thinking too hard about the other condition with regards to women. Prayer was one of the treatments prescribed for these conditions.


Finally we come to Kate Viscardi, an Engineer with quite a diverse career, now working as Senior Admissions Tutor at London’s South Bank University. She gave us a personal account of the effects of the introduction of the Sex Discrimination Act upon her profession. She presented us with some rather worrying figures: the percentage of women in the Engineering workforce has gone from 9% in the 1980’s to only 6% today! Why is this such a huge problem? For one thing, the average pay gap between men and women hasn’t closed yet and access to well paid jobs like Engineering is a part of that. Perhaps more importantly: men and women view the world differently. If all the problem solving is done from one perspective, we may be missing out on a whole host of solutions the other perspective brings to the table. Black & Decker recognised this as early as 1988 when they approached Kate and asked her to find a woman to write their manuals.

When interviewed on the subject of women students in Engineering classes, most professors noted that the few female students they had were head and shoulders above the rest of the class. It would seem that there is a pressure on women to be exceptional just to keep up with men. This is reflected in the attitudes women have of other women too: a woman is more likely to be judgmental of another woman than she will be of men – she expects more of them. In Kate Viscardi’s own words: “We won’t achieve true equality until women are allowed to be average. She spoke about the Daphne Jackson Trust, an organisation designed to help women back into academia: Due to the nature of an Academic career, two years out may as well be 20 years in terms of how behind you will be. There is almost an expectation that a woman will take time out to have a baby but, according to statistics compiled 25 years ago, men are much more likely to take career breaks than women. A good part of that is that they already feel they have to prove they’re keeping up by staying ahead and do not wish to give their critics any ammunition.

A question from the audience: “How can we raise awareness going forward?”

Kate’s answer was that it needed to start in education. How she proposed doing this was a surprise to me. She proposed that there may be too many women Engineers kept occupied in teaching roles recruiting new students while the men go out and recruit new customers. Better that a female student should learn about another woman’s Engineering accomplishments from a male teacher than that she should learn about a man’s Engineering accomplishments from a woman – and thereby come to think that her only prospects in the field are teaching.

Wow, almost 2000 words. That’s all you’re getting from me for now. I understand there was also an audio recording of this talk. Do poke the PubSci organisers for more details.