Women In Science – London Metropolitan Archives Conference

The Saving Oxford Medicine project team have been acquiring, preserving and cataloguing the archives of Oxford-based scientists such as Lady Julia Bodmer, Edith Bülbring, Dorothy Hodgkin, Ida Mann and Mary Somerville. Naturally we were excited to attend the Women in Science event hosted by London Metropolitan Archives (LMA) on 8 March 2013. This event explored the lives and varied contributions of women to scientific progress. And what better day to celebrate pioneering women in science than on International Women’s Day! The event also proved a great complement to the recent global Wikipedia Editathon we attended during Open Access Week in Oxford. This was held to celebrate Ada Lovelace Day and the many, often overlooked contributions made by female scientists.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Howard Benge and Jan Pimblett from the LMA kicked off the day and introduced us to some of the work they have been carrying out to identify science-related material within the millions of documents held in the Archive.

We then started to think about the kinds of scientific work women have been involved in historically, and how we can uncover their work. Importantly, as Howard suggested, there is still a prevailing attitude that women shun the study of science, which makes determining the impact of female scientists problematic (we should also remember that institutions like the Royal Society closed their doors to women as Fellows until 1945, and as such makes female scientists harder to unearth). A thread running through the day with other speakers was that to discover the contributions of female scientists, we must broaden our conceptual net. For example, rather than focusing on ‘pure science’ as such, we should embrace the application of science in society. For instance, the LMA holds collections that relate to food science (not generally regarded as a science per se until modern times), such as freezing and crystallisation, and the Lyons collection illsutrates the development of techniques relating to ice cream.

With this wider framework of applied science in mind, Rebekah Higgitt, Curator and historian of science at Royal Observatory Greenwich and National Maritime Museum then continued the theme, and discussed the definition of ‘someone who does science’ (you can read Rebeka’s Guardian blog here). Rebekah emphasised the different kinds of scientific research and work undertaken by women, and some examples of influential female scientists were highlighted. We heard about Maria Merian, the German artist-naturalist; instrument maker Janet Taylor; publisher, teacher and astronomer Margaret Bryan; Mary Edwards, the ‘human computer’ and Mary Annings, the palaeontologist who ran a fossil shop. All of the above women contributed to science on a daily basis, working close to their homes. It was also noted that from the early twentieth century, ‘new’ science gave women more opportunities to make their name, which had previously been difficult in the traditional fields of physics, astronomy and botany. Crystallographers such as Dorothy Hodgkin and Rosalind Franklin are notable examples here, as is the geneticist Julia Bodmer.

Bridget Howlett then gave an engaging presentation on the LMA collections relating to Florence Nightingale. This includes correspondence from the Crimean War, and training records of the nursing school Nightingale established at St. Thomas’ Hospital. Bridget suggested that although Nightingale is often thought of as ‘anti-science’ for her rejection of the germ theory, she nevertheless supported women’s education and women’s participation in medicine and science. Moreover, not only are her contributions to professional nursing notable, she was a talented statistician and devised a system of accounts for the army during the war. Nightingale also promoted the education of sanitary science and campaigned strongly for the 1867 Metropolitan Poor Act to ensure the provision of infirmaries for sick paupers. As such, Florence Nightingale should without doubt be celebrated as a pioneering woman in science. Here at the Bodleian we hold correspondence from Nightingale in some of our collections.

Jan Pimblett then explained how the LMA uses the archives in public engagement, after which we were given the opportunity to view some original documents from collections that represent influential women in science. A personal favourite was the letter illustrated below from the physician and feminist Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. As the founder of The New Hospital for Women (the first hospital staffed by women), Anderson was the first woman to train and qualify as a doctor in Britain; although as a woman, she battled to be accepted to train for her license to practice as a doctor. She gained much of her training through private tuition.

Letter from Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, 1863

In the letter, Anderson asks a Dr. Hastings to accept her for private instruction in anatomy, and the difficulties she faced are evident. She eventually qualified through the Society of Apothecaries; two years later the Society changed its rules and barred women from taking the exam.

In keeping with the theme of the day and women’s varied and perhaps unlikely or underestimated contributions to science, Tom Richards then discussed his fascinating research on Daphne Oram. Oram invented the early digital workstation known as the Oramics Machine, which enabled her to draw sounds. Her scientific technique and invention was a key musical development, helping to pave the way for modern electronic music. Oram’s work also included co-founding the BBC Radiophonic Workshop in 1958. Daphne Oram’s archive is currently held at Goldsmiths University of London Special Collections.

Anne Locker was the last speaker of the day, and she gave a presentation on early women engineers and scientists whose records are held at the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) Archives. The IET collection represents women from the early twentieth century. During the First World War, women began to participate in engineering jobs and the IET Archive holds the records of electrical engineer Dame Caroline Haslett and reflect her involvement with the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). Haslett was the first Secretary of the Engineering Society and founder and editor of the journal The Woman Engineer. We also heard about the feminist Hertha Ayrton, the first woman to grace the IET. Ayrton worked on electric arcs and ripples in sand and water. The Archive also holds the records of IET Fellow Dr. Elizabeth Laverick, who was the first female Deputy Secretary of the Institute of Electrical Engineers. Like many of the scientists we heard about throughout the day, Laverick was particularly interested in education, and she worked hard to promote engineering as a profession.

Like others had commented on during the day, Anne also emphasised that even though there were a large number of women working in engineering and technology in the earlier period, they are under-represented, and even though they are documented in records, we still don’t know about many of them.

These are just a sample of the many women in science we heard about during the day, and the LMA staff and other speakers provided some thought-provoking and lively discussions about how women have contributed their ideas and work to science, some well-known, others more obscure. Further work in archives is likely to reveal that women played a more prominent role in scientific enterprises than has previously been recognised. It was great to make links with our Saving Oxford Medicine initiative at the Bodleian, and also hear about the work others are doing in a similar field. We are grateful to LMA for the effort they put into the day, and look forward to similar future events.

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