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In focus

'I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all’

by Patricia Fara 

Women from the past have left only faint traces of their existence in the Royal Society archives, and none were admitted as Fellows until 1945. Patricia Fara explores new stories about the past, bringing scientific women into focus.

History is written by the victors – and until recently, accounts of science’s development were dominated by men. Women have left only faint traces of their existence, as if their female voices had been muffled. But silent is an anagram of listen; by telling new stories about the past, scientific daughters, sisters and wives can be restored to audibility. 

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, research was mostly carried out in private homes, so that women often collaborated in the projects of their menfolk. Yet their contributions were rarely acknowledged publicly: when Martha Gerrish sent in information about an unusual solar phenomenon in 1734, she explained that she had deliberately adopted a ‘masculine hand’ to make her letter ‘acceptable to the Royal Society’; despite her efforts, the short paper was never printed. 

Women were sometimes disguised beneath anonymity in the Society’s records, and it was not until 1755 that the earliest published report definitely written by a woman appeared; even then, she was referred to as Governor Belcher’s Lady, as if she were a possession rather than an individual called Louise.

In addition, illustrations were regularly contributed by women, especially of biological specimens; for example, when some quarry workers stumbled across a small cave near Kirkdale in Yorkshire, it was Mary Morland who provided the drawings of the fossil finds for the Philosophical Transactions.

Drawings and watercolours by Mary Morland

While letters and notes by women had been printed earlier, notably by Caroline Herschel, the first woman to receive full credit for a scientific article was Mary Somerville, whose study of magnetism and the sun’s rays appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1826. Yet even though she became the first person ever to be labelled a ‘scientist’ in print and was nationally celebrated as ‘The Queen of the Sciences’, she was not allowed to attend the meetings of the Royal Society: her husband was obliged to read out her paper on her behalf. As what perhaps seemed an additional insult, her marble bust, a gift on behalf of the Fellows by the Duke of Sussex, President of the Royal Society, was placed on display in the Society’s library on the 25th of March 1842.

The ban on female entry had been in place since 1667, when Margaret Cavendish – wife of the extremely rich and influential Duke of Newcastle – pulled rank and insisted on being shown some experiments. She was a knowledgeable well-educated woman who carried out independent research and had published several books, but the Society was reluctant to acquiesce in the visit. Instead of modestly admiring the demonstrations they had prepared, she antagonised them with her criticisms; reciprocally, they ridiculed Cavendish by exaggerating her taste for extravagant clothes and her outspoken behaviour. Often dismissed as ‘Mad Madge,’ she provided a convenient excuse for ensuring that the Society’s fellowship remained a female-free zone for almost three centuries.

It was not until 1904 that a woman was allowed to present her own paper inside the Royal Society. The physicist Hertha Ayrton, a close friend of Marie Skłodowska Curie, was particularly renowned for her improvements to electric lighting, and she was awarded the Royal Society’s prestigious Hughes Prize for her practical inventions; in addition, the archives reveal that behind the scenes, she was invited to assess other researchers’ work. In 1902, a group of distinguished scientists proposed her for fellowship, but the Society managed to avoid this radical innovation by falling back on a legal technicality. According to their Charter, married women were ineligible, and although the Society could in principle have eliminated this restriction, the reactionary faction prevailed and she was barred.

Ayrton gained entry to scientific circles and was known internationally, but she became increasingly marginalised after the death of her husband, a distinguished Fellow. Even age was gendered: the Royal Society’s male President was respected as a venerable octogenarian, while as a 52-year old woman she was already regarded as too elderly to contribute.

I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all,’ Ayrton told a Daily News journalist in 1919; ‘The idea of “woman and science” is completely irrelevant. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.’ Little heeded, that resounding call for equality slipped into obscurity. Over the following hundred years, although women were increasingly admitted to the Society, in practice their status remained unequal.

In 1945, the Fellows eventually relented and elected its first two women, the crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale and the biochemist Marjorie Stephenson. Gradually the numbers crawled upwards. Three years later, another eminent biochemist from Cambridge, Dorothy Moyle Needham, became the eighth woman to join the Royal Society. Although she campaigned strongly to secure equal treatment for women, she repeatedly experienced discrimination. Like Ayrton, she existed in the shadow of her husband; marginalised at the edge of the scientific community, she survived through a succession of poorly paid temporary positions. Most unusually, her official memorial tribute in Biographical Memoirs failed to appear until sixteen years after her death, partly due to the biographer's death - and even when it did appear in print, rather than celebrating her as the eighth female Fellow, the new author emphasised instead that she and her husband were the first married couple to become FRSs.

In 1982, Moyle Needham wrote: ‘I have looked through the Royal Society list of Fellows for 1978 and I find some 28 women included out of about 750 Fellows.’ Under 4%: that tiny proportion shocked her, but the figure is still only around 12%. She continued: ‘May the day soon come when prejudice and obstacles will be removed, and women be free to make the fine contributions of which they are assuredly capable.’ Over fifty years later, her splendid ambition has still not been fully realised, but the Royal Society’s archives reveal how listening carefully can pick up echoes reverberating through the silence of the past.

About the Author:

Dr Patricia Fara is an Emeritus Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, where she was Senior Tutor for ten years. She originally read physics at Oxford, but is now a historian of science and was President of the British Society for the History of Science from 2016 to 2018. She is currently President of the Antiquarian Horological Society, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and winner of the 2022 Abraham Pais prize awarded by the American Physical Society. As well as academic lecturing and supervising, she writes popular books and articles, and is a regular contributor to In Our Time and other radio/TV programmes. She is especially interested in the Enlightenment period, with a particular emphasis on scientific imagery and women in science, Her prize-winning Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009) has been translated into nine languages, while her other highly acclaimed books include A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in The First World War (2018) and most recently, Life after Gravity: Isaac Newton’s London Career (2021).