As part of our recent exhibition “350 years of science”, we asked visitors to fill in a card naming their scientific hero. Of a total of 141 responses, sadly only 15 were for women – a meagre 11%. Perhaps this is not entirely surprising, as the Royal Society’s history is heavily skewed in favour of male scientists (we only started electing female Fellows in 1945) – and this blog is also guilty of showing a distinctly male bias in its subject matter too. However, since the ‘forgotten’ women of science have been in the news recently – started by an article by Richard Holmes in the Guardian and continued by Alice Bell on her blog - I thought this would be a good time to give the ladies a look-in, and see which female scientists our visitors were promoting.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the names mentioned most frequently were Rosalind Franklin and Marie Curie, with 6 and 3 votes respectively. The other 5 names, with a single vote each, were Caroline Herschel, Emmy Noether, Eunice Brayshaw, Susan Greenfield, and Vera Rubin.
Interestingly, in 1996 Vera Rubin was the second ever female recipient of the Royal Astronomical Society’s Gold medal; the first was Caroline Herschel in 1828.
Even within such a small sample the comments ranged widely, covering ground from moving tribute, “Marie Curie: science cost her everything”, to humorous summary, “Caroline Herschel: number one space chick”. I was also interested to see that historical as well as current names were mentioned.
However, my favourite comment was that left in support of Eunice Brayshaw: “Taught by Rutherford and then taught me physics at school – inspirational, talented and enthusiastic”. I have no idea where Eunice ended up teaching, but it she sounds like she left a real impression, and I’d love to find out more about her. (If you wrote this message and would like to let us know more about her please do get in touch!)
Those of you who are good at maths will have noticed I said there were 15 votes for women, but I’ve only mentioned names for 14 of them. By way of celebrating all the unsung heroines behind the scenes of science, the final vote gave a shout out for “the women who gave birth to all the heroes”!