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"Dreams of Isis"

To ancient Egyptians, the goddess Isis was supreme in magical power, cunning, and knowledge. Daughter of Earth and Sky, she was the goddess of fertility and kemet, the black soil of the flooded Nile. Indeed, scholars believe kemet to be the origin of the word chemistry. Isis brought wisdom to the Earth, controlled the transformation of beings and things, institutued the art of medicine, and taught humans the practice of agriculture.

Through the centuries, women have sought to understand the natural world. They have become chemists, geologists, ecologists, agronomists, molecular biologists, doctors and physicists. Often at great financial and personal sacrifice, women have been willing to confront male-dominated societies to probe the unknown, to seek solutions, to heal, to teach, and to encourage others who, as they did, dream of becoming scientists. Today, as more women than ever enter the scientific professions, the labors of these courageous pioneers are finally coming to fruition.

Women of Science: Righting the Record seeks to correct misconceptions about the record of women's contributions to science. Even more, this book seeks to complete a record that is dismally lacking in detail and accuracy. It contains a wealth of information about women's contributions in many scientific fields. To read the book is to be caught up in the joy of discovery experienced by these women, the frustration when their efforts were not recognized and supported, and the satisfaction and triumph so many were able to achieve.

Many women in the book are familiar to us, including Maria Goeppart-Mayer, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963. As noted by Patsy Ann Giese in the last issue of the News, because of prevailing nepotism rules, she worked without salary at the University of Chicago for many years while her husband, chemistry professor Joseph Mayer, held a full faculty position. Lise Meitner, one of history's most brilliant nuclear physicists, was overlooked by the Nobel Committee while her collaborator, Otto Hahn, was granted the award in 1944. Other familiar figures described in the book include Gerty Cori, Rita Levi-Montalcini, Barbara McClintock, and Rosalind Franklin.

Even knowledgeable readers will find new names. All were gifted with the confidence, vision, and courage essential for overcoming indifference, hostility, belittlement and denigration of effort. Against powerful odds, they persisted and prevailed. This book is primarily about women who, for a multitude of reasons, have been excluded from the history of science. Poignantly, the book is dedicated by the authors "to those we didn't find."

The introduction mentions Isaac Asimov's Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, which lists only 10 women among the 1,195 scientists whose work is described. The authors comment that "the validity of ultimate significance of a man's work is rarely the deciding criterion for his inclusion in the history of science. It is usually sufficient that he and his work are thought historically interesting." Thus, the authors note, 5 of the 10 women cited by Asimov are Nobel Prize winners, but not 50% of the men.

Although much of the early history of women as practitioners of science is steeped in myth, scholarly investigation has put the stamp of approval on a number of stories. Early in the 3rd century, Maria the Jewess, sister of Moses, invented the water bath, now known as the double boiler--or Marienbad in German, and bain Marie in French. For this and other work, she was named one of the twelve sages of alchemy by Michael Maier, a well known 17th-century alchemist. Somewhat later, Cleopatra earned a reputation for being both an experimentalist and a philosopher. The earliest shorthand for elements is attributed to Cleopatra. In the Middle Ages, women often helped their alchemist husbands as practitioners of the Black Art.

Women gained recognition in astronomy, physics and chemistry in the 17th and 18th centuries, but it was not until the 19th century that women began to be accepted at well known universities. Ida Hyde (1854-1945) was the first woman to graduate from the University of Heidelberg, to do research at the Harvard Medical School and to be elected to the American Physiological Society. She was also the first inventor of a microelectrode small enough to be used in a single cell.

In the 20th century, the Apgar Scale, a standardized scale for determining the physical status of an infant at birth, was devised in 1953 by Dr. Virginia Apgar, a professor of anaesthesia at New York Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center. While working at the National Cancer Institute, Katherine Sanford (b. 1915) became the first person to clone a mammalian cell. After suffering a series of stillbirths, Dr. Ruth Darrow hypothesized an unknown fetal antigen--subsequently identifiied as the Rh factor--that could lead to antigen-antibody reaction in a fetus. Immunization soon became available to prevent Rh-negative mothers from sensitization to the Rh-antigen present in fetuses.

Often, women with well known husbands or male colleagues received little credit for their contributions to shared careers. Lillian Gilbreth (1878-1972) described in the book Cheaper By the Dozen, was probably the best known woman engineer in history. She outlived her husband by nearly fifty years, managing the important engineering consulting firm they had established before his premature death in 1924. Although she had earned a Ph.D. and was appointed full professor in the School of Engineering at Purdue University in 1935, history records her as primarily an adjunct to her husband. Emily Roebling supervised the building of the Brooklyn Bridge after her husband became incapacitated three years after the start of the project. Judith Graham Pool, who in 1947 reinvented the microelectrode (after Ida Hyde's efforts of the early 1930s had failed to achieve recognition) was virtually ignored while her colleague, Ralph Gerard, was nominated for a Nobel Prize for "his" work. When Gerty Cori and her husband, Carl, came to the United States from Prague in 1922 to work at the New York Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases, they were advised to end their research collaboration because "it would be detrimental to his career." In 1947 they shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology for their work on the metabolism of glycogen.

According to Brush [1], the steady increase in the number of women earning science and engineering degrees from the 1960s until the early 1980s has leveled off. Although there is little doubt that equal opportunity has not been achieved, the reasons are complex. Despite equal opportunity laws, evidence still exists for discrimination at all levels of careers in the sciences. Much of it appears to be due to an "old boy network," the existence of which is often denied, but is very much in place when it comes to women seeking mentors, discussing new ideas, or being invited to speak at conferences [2]. Salaries for women are significantly lower than those for men, and it takes longer for women to attain tenure in universities than it does for men. In industry, median salaries for women range from 73% to 88% of the median salaries for men. Also, industry has been criticized for not helping women juggle a career and a family [3].

Another reason for declining interest in the sciences is indicated by a recent study of 1983-1991 graduates of Wellesley College, a women's college with a high proportion of graduates seeking advanced degrees [4]. According to the study the so-called "chilly climate" that could lead capable women to give up a scientific career did not appear to be a crucial factor in their decision not to seek scientific careers. Wellesley alumnae don't see science as a "male" field as much as they regard it as an exceptionally demanding one. Furthermore, 25% of Wellesley graduates felt that a scientific career (as a female) was not compatible with raising a family.

Today, notable examples of women's success include the "trimates," Jane Goodall, Birute Galdikas and Dian Fossey, whose work with the great apes have achieved worldwide recognition. Rosalyn Yalow won a Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine in 1987 for her work on peptide hormones. Dr. Bernadine Healy, a distinguished physician, served as Director of the National Institutes of Health during the Bush presidency. Women astronauts, including Dr. Sally Ride, Katherine Thorton and Mae Jemison are familiar figures on television and in newspapers and magazines. Dr. Nancy Wexler leads a group of researchers who recently identified the gene for Huntington's disease. She has been a Fulbright fellow and in 1993 was granted the Albert Lasker Award for Public Service. Atmospheric chemist Dr. Susan Solomon has led an otherwise all-male team in Antarctica to study the effects of CFCs on the ozone layer. Despite these outstanding role models, there is still a shortage of women in the sciences. Today, special programs are available through the National Science Foundation and other governmental and private agencies to help women advance their careers. In addition, women themselves are joining together to form a network of support and collaboration [5].

Kass-Simon and Farnes' book contains an important message for educators, especially high school teachers. When they were young, many women scientists recall a keen interest in nature, collecting fossils or living specimens, hiking, working with chemistry sets or exploring the unknown in other ways. The Wellesley study showed that most women had made a career choice before they had entered college, a strong affirmation that precollegiate education is crucial in guiding girls toward scientific careers. A recent informal study of high school graduates enrolled in science programs at colleges and universities indicated that if high schoool math and science teachers' expectations were the same for girls as boys, the girls would choose to major in science and math, regardless of the attitude of teachers or professors in middle school or college. Is there a "critical period" where teenage girls become committed to scientific careers? This bears promise for further research.

In conclusion, while providing an outstanding record of women's accomplishments in science, the story is incomplete. Oppoprtunities and challenges lie ahead to be met by women of vision who are committed to science and the betterment of humankind. For poet William Wordsworth, science was feminine. "Science appears but, what in truth she is, . . . a prop to our infirmity." Women, as scientists, can lead in the triumph over infirmity.

Frances Vandervoort, Chicago, IL


  1. Brush, Stephen. 1991. "Women in Science and Engineering." American Scientist 79:404-19.
  2. Conley, Frances. 1994. "Gender Stereotyping and the Medical Profession." Journal of College Science Teaching 24(#1, Oct.): 17-21.
  3. "Women Scientists Lagging in Industry Jobs." New York Times (Jan. 18, 1994): B9.
  4. "The Making of a (Female) Scientist." Science 262(1993): 1815.
  5. "Making Room for Women in the Culture of Science." Science 260 (1993): 412-15.

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