Science has long been considered a ‘man’s field’ though a great many female scientists have worked and continue to work in it. Despite this, the stereotype continues. Much of this is because a lot of contributions by several notable luminaries in their fields have been written of or wrongly credited to their male colleagues.
Thinking about DNA immediately bring to mind the names James Watson and Francis Crick, the two scientists who received the Nobel prize for their discovery of DNA. However a name that never seems to show up is that of Rosalind Franklin, despite the fact that her research was instrumental in Watson and Crick’s. She died in 1961 and therefore could not be included as a recipient of the award (an honour, James Watson admitted, she well deserved). We are left to wonder as to why she is not known for her role in scientific history.
Since the early eighties, AIDS has been the boogeyman which has haunted the medical landscape. There have been many theories about AIDS, from being considered a ‘gay’ disease to an instant killer (both untrue) and thus for years, scientists searched for any answered related to this disease. Eventually the virus linked to it- HIV- was discovered by a woman: Francoise Barre-Sinoussi. It was the discovery of the virus itself which helped in understanding its transmission cycle and how to treat it AIDs. With all the hype surrounding the disease (which continues to this day), you’d think we’d know the name of the person who provided the first step to understanding and stopping it, but she continues to be relatively unknown.
In the early 1970s, a young woman discovered that starts on the edge of the galaxy orbited with the same speed as stars at the center of the galaxy- something which should have been scientifically impossible. The areas with most mass (the center) should also have the strongest gravitational forces, leading to the slowest speed. This led young Vera Rubin to discover dark matter, the stuff of science fiction films everywhere. Unfortunately for her, her work was discredited for most of her lifetime until it was confirmed later by her other, male colleagues.
Cecilia Payne discovered the composition of her stars and her PhD thesis was considered the ‘most brilliant PhD thesis ever written” by eminent astronomer Otto Struv. She was the first female astronomer to earn her degree from both Cambridge and Radcliffe. Despite this, her work was discredited and her mentor of the time, Henry Norris Russell, forced her not to publish her work (claiming that it would be not accepted). Not only did Russell later receive credit for Payne’s discovery four years later, Payne was awarded the Henry Norris Russell award as ‘compensation’.
The creation of the atom bomb depended on the process of nuclear fission and it was this process that was discovered by a woman, Lisa Meitner. Unfortunately, her contributions to science remain unknown to the world at large as much of her research happened during World War II where she was forced to work in secret. The man she worked with, Otto Hahn and his partner, Fritz Strassman, eventually won a Nobel Prize for their work with no mention of Meitner anywhere despite the fact that much of their work was based on Meitner’s research.
The names of many such women and the contributions in their fields are forgotten by history. It makes it easy to spread the stereotype that women do not belong in certain fields such as science, computer engineering and the like despite the fact that it was a woman who wrote the first work of science fiction, it was a woman who invented computer code and that it was a woman who helped launch Apollo 11. On the contrary, women are often treated to disdainful remarks such as accusing them of ‘crying’ and messing up things because of how ‘easy it is to fall in love with them’, thereby making male dominated fields even harder for women to enter. Women have always belonged in these fields and it is up to us to make sure their names are not forgotten.