Recovering the women in science

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Portrait of Dame Honor Bridget Fell at her microscope.

There has recently been increasing interest in recovering the history of women in science, perhaps as the result of the desire to recruit more women into studying STEM subjects. The Royal Society recently held a group ‘Edit-a-thon’, to improve Wikipedia articles about women in science, in connection with Ada Lovelace Day.

On Saturday 10th November the Midlands Region of the Women’s History Network held a very well-attended day conference on ‘Women in Science’ at the University of Worcester, to which I was invited as a keynote speaker. I reprised some of the material presented in my George Hay Lecture, ‘Invisible Women: the scientists people don’t see’ to provide a general overview of the long history of women’s involvement in scientific endeavours and the reasons why their contributions have tended to be overlooked.

The theme of the invisibility of women’s work was continued in Sally Horrocks’ paper on ‘Gender, Science and the State: British Government Research Laboratories from World War II to the 1960s’, in which she combined analysis of statistics from government reports with material from the Oral History of British Science to present a nuanced picture of women working in the highly bureaucratic structures of government departments. She found that while some individual women were perceived as high-powered and sometimes scary colleagues, male interviewees also alluded to the ‘girls’ who worked on a range of necessary support activities and were almost perceived as part of the lab equipment, though she also noted a change over time towards encouraging them to take up educational opportunities and advance their careers.

Lively informal discussions took place over lunch before we returned to the lecture theatre for the afternoon keynote by Dr Ruth Watts, ‘A “few competent women”: women, education and medical opportunities in Birmingham, England, in the late nineteenth century’, which underlined the importance of looking at particular local situations and doing individual case-studies. The local medical culture in Birmingham, and a provincial elite strongly embedded in the relatively egalitarian beliefs of Unitarianism and the Society of Friends, meant an unusual sympathy for at least exceptional women’s right to study and practice medicine, and the very early appointment of women doctors to posts in local hospitals.

Whitney Wood, of the University of Waterloo, Canada, gave an illuminating paper on the ideas of medical science about women’s bodies as revealed in advice literature relating to childbirth circulating in Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Julie Hipperson, of Imperial College, concluded the conference with ‘Vets First, Women Second? The Society of Women Veterinary Surgeons in Britain, 1941-1990’. Women veterinary surgeons were anxious to be considered primarily as qualified professionals, even though there were significant gender-related elements to their position: for example, their employment was mainly in the less prestigious field of small animals (pets) rather than farm animals or horses. The increasing proportion of women in the profession tends to reflect the declining importance of agricultural practice compared to that involving domestic companions.

This was an excellent day’s conference. While improving the visibility of women working in several scientific fields and in unexpected place in the past, it also suggested that there is much fascinating future work to be done in this area.

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall

Lesley Hall, FRHistS, PhD, DipAA, has been an archivist at the Wellcome since 1979. She has published extensively on the history of sexuality and gender in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries, given many talks and conference presentations, and featured on radio and television. Further details can be found at her website.

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