Guest post by James Poskett
It’s 1904. In one hand, Pierre Curie is holding aloft a small piece of radium. He has recently been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for his work with this highly radioactive element. This tiny piece of radium is literally illuminating the path for Pierre; he gazes resolutely into the unknown, the way lit up in a blaze of yellow light.
Now, Pierre did not work on radiation alone. He shared the Nobel Prize with his wife, Marie Skłodowska-Curie. And where is she? Like any good wife, she is supporting her husband. Whilst Pierre’s left hand heralds the march of progress, Marie’s left hand is placed gently on his shoulder. She is wearing a neat blue dress (Pierre’s dress-sense is of less importance) and simply looks on.
A Vanity Fair cartoon of course and a classic portrayal of early twentieth-century women in science. Less “on the shoulders of giants” and more “over the shoulders of men” might be a fair assessment.
As ever, there is little point chastising those in the past. Better to highlight the immense and often unacknowledged contribution women have made over the course of history (and yes, that extends well beyond the role of a loving sister, wife or mother). In fact, as part of the International Year of Chemistry, the United Nations explicitly wishes us to “celebrate the contributions of women to science”. 2011 is a good place to start. It marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the year in which Marie Curie went on to win her second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, for the discovery of radium and polonium.
A few years later, following the outbreak of the First World War, Marie Curie orchestrated the first use of radiation in the field. From her previous work she was familiar with X-rays, and organised for small motor vehicles to be equipped with radiography machines in order to assist doctors on the front line. The machines were a great success (removing a bullet is a lot easier if you know where it is) and were referred to at the time as “petites Curies”. It seems then that Marie moved well beyond that 1904 image, with both professional recognition in the form of the Nobel Prize, and more widespread public appreciation embodied in the term “petite Curie”.
And so we move from one X-ray to another, with radiation running neatly through the story of women in science. In 1964 Dorothy Hodgkin FRS was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for her work on X-ray crystallography. Finally, the illuminating light was in the hands of a woman. By bombarding biological molecules with X-rays, Hodgkin was able to map the structures of penicillin and vitamin B12. “Bombarding” here somewhat detracts from Hodgkin’s real skill in interpreting the images she produced. She was a bright and patient mathematician, churning through hundreds of calculations in order to hit upon the correct structure. And, whilst X-ray crystallography may sound rather heavy (even for chemistry), understanding the structure of these molecules proved incredibly important for the development of antibiotics.
When discussing the history of X-ray crystallography (not an everyday occurrence) Rosalind Franklin’s name cannot go unmentioned. Franklin is perhaps most famous for failing to win a Nobel Prize. In 1962 the Nobel Committee announced three names: Francis Crick FRS, James Watson (now ForMemRS) and Maurice Wilkins FRS. Three names entered the history books for their discovery of the structure of DNA, the world’s most famous molecule. One name, Rosalind Franklin, was left out. She produced many of the images and did much of the work that proved crucial in confirming the iconic double-helix structure. As before, it’s probably best not to spend too much time grumbling about Crick and Watson, so long as you remember Franklin’s name each time you hear the letters DNA.
Ok, so Franklin, Hodgkin and Curie certainly provide ample reason for women to be proud of their scientific achievements. But can these histories teach us more? The answer is of course: yes. Rather than simply acting as female role models, these women point to the fact that “female scientists” are just, well, “scientists”. Being a woman didn’t make Hodgkin a great scientist. The colour of her tights, the behaviour of her children and the quality of her Yorkshire pudding were all irrelevant. It was her ability to tirelessly compute Fourier series, combined with an almost tacit knowledge for molecular structure, which secured her the Nobel Prize. Whilst celebrating female scientists of the past is important, there will come a time when the phrase “women in science” could become counterproductive. It may serve to perpetuate the idea that women are alien to science. Ultimately, female scientists cannot, and should not, be eternally defined by their femininity.
So, when the United Nations next decides to celebrate the world of chemistry, let’s hope there is no longer a need for the phrase “women in science”. Just as the colour of someone’s eyes is irrelevant to their scientific ability, in the end, so too is their gender.
James Poskett is a freelance science writer specialising in the history of science and medicine. Previously, he studied at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. There he completed his dissertation on the philosophy of scientific method entitled “Against Method, or For Pluralism”.