What better way for the Royal Society archive to celebrate International Women’s Day than by welcoming our first collection of personal papers from a female Fellow? We’ve recently had the good news that we’ll be the new home for the papers of Rosa Beddington, a developmental biologist who became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1999.
In various ways, women have long played an important role in the history of the Royal Society (see these previous blog posts from July 2011 and March 2013 for more). But given that the first female Fellows weren’t elected until 1945, when Kathleen Lonsdale and Marjory Stephenson joined the Society, it’s perhaps no surprise that the archive doesn’t yet fully document the many accomplishments of female scientists.
We’re working to rectify this at the Royal Society archive by actively collecting the papers of female Fellows. And we’re reinvestigating the archive to seek out women scientists who have been somewhat overshadowed by their male counterparts. For example, alongside the papers of John Cornforth FRS, you’ll find the papers of his wife Rita Cornforth, not a Fellow but a very accomplished chemist in her own right. Similarly, together with the archive of Howard Florey PRS, we have the papers of his wife Ethel Florey, doctor and author of ‘Clinical Application of Antibiotics’, as well as some papers of his female research assistants. Go further back and you’ll continue to find traces of female scientists, as Uta Frith FRS discovered in her posts on ‘Females, fossils and hyenas’ (part one and part two).
But, as the first female Fellow whose papers have been deposited with us, the archive of Rosa Beddington represents a milestone worth celebrating. Beddington was head of research into mammalian development at the Medical Research Council’s National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR). Her research focused on the early stages of mammalian embryo development, and her work included performing microsurgery on mouse embryos in order to study molecular genetics. She was hugely successful in her working life, being awarded a fellowship from the Lister Institute for Preventative Medicine in 1983; an international scholarship from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in 1993; and the Waddington Medal of the British Society for Developmental Biology in 1999. On top of this, Beddington was a talented artist, creating her own scientific illustrations, often with images of mice as a recurring motif. Sadly Beddington died of cancer in 2001, aged only 45.
Her papers, which are due to be transferred to the Royal Society from the Medical Research Council, include lab and note books, annotated conference papers and some personal papers. In the archive Beddington’s papers will be cared for in the context of her scientific peers and predecessors, and once catalogued, they will be made accessible to researchers. We hope that Beddington’s personal papers will be the first of many such collections deposited with us. As the proportion of female Fellows continues to grow, so will their representation in the archive of the Royal Society.
With thanks to the Medical Research Council and the family of Rosa Beddington for gifting Rosa’s scientific and personal papers.