Women in Science in the Archives: A seminar in pictures

Women in science and, indeed, scientists in general, are still underrepresented in the Bodleian’s archives, at least compared to our vast collections of political and literary papers. At the same time, scientists are often not aware of the ‘historical’ dimension of their work, the potential archival value of their lab notes, research proposals, publication drafts, professional and personal correspondence, CVs, funding applications, articles, photos, committee minutes, diaries … and the many other records they produce during their careers.

The Women in Science in the Archives Seminar, which took place at the Bodleian’s Weston Library on Thursday 8 September, was an attempt to bridge this archives / science divide — but first and foremost, it was a day of celebrating the achievements of historical female scientists in what used to be almost exclusively male-dominated disciplines, and exploring how archives can give a voice to those who are no longer able to speak for themselves. It was also an opportunity to invite today’s women of science into the archives, to discuss the lives and careers of female scientists in the early 21st century,  which kind of challenges they (still!) face, and not least, how these experiences can be preserved in the archives of the future.

With speakers from both the archives/history and the science world, and an audience equally diverse, the seminar came with a tight schedule of talks, a panel discussion and an “Archives…close-up!” curator-led display of selected items from the Boldleian collections. A challenge in terms of keeping time but, judging from the lively debates during the Q&As, the many personal reflections,  and the feedback from the participants, definitely a success in bringing together archives and science.

Women in Science in the Archive SEMINAR PROGRAMME

Instead of a lengthy written account of the day – which would probably be inadequate to capture all the details and the atmosphere anyway – here are some photographic impressions of the event. To learn more about the speakers and the topics, follow the links in the image captions – and of course, feel free to contact us with your comments and questions.

All images (c) Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.

Susan Thomas, Head of Bodleian Archives & Modern Manuscripts, introducing the Scientific manuscripts and archives at the Bodleian Libraries

Ruth Boreham

Women in Science in the 19th century: Ruth Boreham reading from a letter by Mary Somerville, sciencer write and polymath, to her publisher John Murray, 1857. Somerville was known as ‘The Queen of Science’, and, jointly with Caroline Herschel, was appointed first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1835.

FitzGerald Postcard

The Mabel FitzGerald Archive – 40 boxes of scientific, personal, and family papers documenting the life and work of a women in biomedical science at the beginning of the 20th century….

FitzGerald archive

…but, after 75 years at FitzGerald’s Oxford home at 12 Crick Road, and almost 40 years in storage, the papers first need some (actually, a lot of) sorting, preservation and cataloguing! A look behind the scenes of archives processing at the Bodleian.

Martha Tissot van Patot

From (archive) boxes to biography: Martha Tissot van Patot finishing her talk on Mabel FitzGerald, and the big task of researching the life and work of an almost forgotten scientist.

Georgina Ferry

Georgina Ferry on using archives for writing the biography of Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin. Hodgkin was a biochemist at Oxford, and a pioneer in protein crystallography, yet when in 1964 she won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for her groundbreaking work, the press commented: “On Thursday the affable-looking housewife below won Britain’s fifty-eighth Nobel prize for a thoroughly un-housewifely skill”- The Observer, 13 December 1964.

Fran Ashcroft

Frances Ashcroft first became Professor of Physiology at Oxford in 1996, exactly 100 years after Mabel FitzGerald started her studies at the very place in the very subject – then unofficially, as women were not yet allowed to take a degree. Ashcroft is also a Fellow of the Royal Society, to which FitzGerald, being a women of the very early 20th century, was denied presenting her own papers. – A fascinating conversation with Callan Walsh about wild orchids and other inspirations, the importance of libraries, some comments by some men, changes over time, and most importantly: about being a scientist, and being very good at it. (And yes, Professor Ashcroft, we would like to have your archive at the Bodleian!)


Women in Science in the 21st century: Dr Karolina Chocian, Dr Sana Suri, Dr Fiona Larner and Dr Natalie Connor-Robson discussing what has changed since the days of Somerville, FitzGerald and Hodgkin – and what still needs to change to achieve gender equality in STEM subjects. And how will archives preserve the work of 21st century scientists, and their career experiences? Letters are emails now, Twitter has replaced diaries. It’s a digital world, with its own challenges for archivists.

Peter Robbins

Peter Robbins, Professor of Physiology and Head of Department at DPAG, giving the concluding remarks.


Archives …close-up! Show-and-tell with selected items from the Somerville, FitzGerald, and Hodgkin papers at the Bodleian

Show-and-tell with Hodgkins

Women in Science biographers Marta Tissot van Patot and Georgina Ferry with Liz and Toby Hodgkin (right), whose mother was, as the Daily Mail and many other newspapers reported at the time, the ‘Oxford housewife’ who won the Nobel Prize…

Show-and-tell Fran Ashcroft

Of interest for her 21st-century colleagues: Mabel FitzGerald’s field notes and postcards from the Pikes Peak expedition, 1911.

Geoffrey Purefoy at show-and-tell

Geoffrey Purefoy, Mabel FitzGerald’s grandnephew and donor of her archive, in conversation with 21st-century scientists.


We can only ever show a very small selection of material at events like these, but our archives are available to readers in the Special Collections reading rooms. Why not have a look at the Bodleian Archives and Manuscripts online catalogues and search for ‘Somerville’ or ‘Hodgkin’ to discover the full collections? – The catalogue of the Mabel FitzGerald Archive will become available shortly, as the result of a cataloguing project funded by the Wellcome Trust. Watch this space for news!


Supported by the Wellcome Trust

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