To celebrate International Women’s Day earlier this week, we dug into our archives to see if we could uncover some inspirational stories about the women who helped shape science as we know it today. Dr Alice Lee (1859–1939) was just one of a handful of women who, in 1901, could claim to have had a paper published in the Philosophical Transactions.
‘I am forwarding to you today for consideration for the Phil. Trans. a paper by Dr. Alice Lee. The history of it is concisely given in a prefatory note. She asked me to consider it with a view to its possible publication and I suggested a considerable number of emendations and additions […].
Unfortunately a deadlock was thus produced as she objected to my presenting the paper as purely hers, and I had to compromise the matter in the manner indicated in the title. Still, I want the paper treated as hers, presented by me; for in the matter of editing, I have hardly done more than any professor does for a research student working in his laboratory. So please, remember that Miss Lee’s name is to be associated with the memoir’
Karl Pearson to Robert Harrison, 12 July 1900, The Royal Society Archives, MM/17/66.
This letter by Prof. Karl Pearson accompanied the contribution of Dr Alice Lee to a series of publications gathering mathematical data for the problem of evolution of man. Despite Pearson’s claim, his promotion of a female research student was much more than what most professors would have done in 1900.
Indeed, he was not any professor, she was not any research student and this was not any paper.
Pearson, along with feminist and anti-war South-African campaigner Olive Schreiner, had founded the Men and Women’s Club and he actively promoted the collaboration of women in science.
Lee was one of the first women to obtain a PhD in Mathematics from University College London, after it allowed women to graduate in 1878. She had been working in Pearson’s eugenics laboratory throughout her doctoral studies and this paper was a condensed version of her PhD.
Dr Lee’s research sought the best mathematical formula to calculate the capacity of man’s cranium based on external measurements, in order to replace the then standard method of estimating the capacity of an empty skull by pouring sand into it. By doing so, Lee could work with living subjects and in other papers, she demonstrated that the capacity of man’s cranium did not correlate with the intelligence of its bearer. From this, she rightfully inferred that there was no demonstrable correlation to support the idea that women were intellectually inferior to men based on physical characteristics.
Lee demonstrated this by gathering skull measurements from the eminent attendees at an anatomy conference in Dublin, members of the British Association, UCL lecturers and 30 members of her former female college of Bedford. In her papers, she named her subjects (first ethical mistake), including the measurements of her future PhD examiner, Sir William Turner (second strategical mistake). Despite the fact that her point was precisely that there was no correlation between the size of one’s head and one’s intelligence, Turner took very badly to be classified as one before last in cranium capacity. Lee’s PhD examination turned into a graduate student’s nightmare, as her examiners questioned the originality or her work as well as her conclusions. After Pearson’s repeated intercession, however, she was awarded her doctoral title.
Alice’s story is fully told in a cunningly titled article by Rosaleen Love: ‘Alice in Eugenics-Land’: Feminism and Eugenics in the scientific careers of Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton but I thought it fitting to direct people’s attention to her contribution to Phil. Trans. to celebrate another women’s day for several reasons: she was a pioneer statistician, a campaigner for equality in higher education and her collaborations with Pearson in Phil. Trans. debunked using statistical analysis at least two myths concerning women: their intellectual inferiority and the false principle of telegony according to which ‘female A, after mating with male B, bears to a male C offspring having some resemblance to or some peculiar characteristic of A’s first mate B’.
One last reason to be interested by Dr Lee’s research is that she also got it wrong: despite publishing data which hinted at the same results, she did not fully agree with anthropologist Franz Boas’ conclusion that there was no deterministic relation between behaviour and biology. “While arguing vehemently against the notion of a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ type of intellectual power somehow determinable by cranial measurements, Alice Lee accepted uncritically Pearson’s notion of a ‘racial type’ “, summarised Love. Alice’s inability to confront her own racist prejudices and let her data do the talking should serve as a reminder that the right to error is also fundamental in reaching equality. Remember, therefore, that Dr Lee’s name is to be associated with the memoir.