Historical images of women using scientific instruments

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Biologist Beatrice Mintz (b. 1921) with microscope
Biologist Beatrice Mintz (b. 1921), with microscope. Photograph: Smithsonian Institution/flickr


There is something about one of my Pinterest boards that seems to have caught the imagination. It is, as the platform allows, simply a way of collecting and displaying images that I have culled from elsewhere across the internet, hitting a particular theme. This one is called Women using scientific instruments.

At present, it is only 42 images, from the 14th century to the 1970s, the majority coming from the mid 19th to the mid 20th century. It has largely been created by chance and targeted Googling and offers no narratives and little interpretation. Yet it seems to have provided something that at least some people were looking for.

I started it some time back. Having written a blogpost including an image of putti using scientific instruments, I got into conversation with Danny Birchill on Twitter and mentioned that this had once been a fairly common trope and that, pre-19th century, images of people actually using scientific instruments were relatively rare. Danny was prompted to make his own Pinterest board, Putti of Science (there are many other examples).

This was my introduction to Pinterest, and I set about creating some history of science-themed boards myself. I hadn’t really promoted them but, after happening to mention it on Twitter, Alice Bell tweeted:

Historian of science, @beckyfh has a ‘women using scientific instruments’ board on Pinterest. And it’s a delight.http://www.pinterest.com/beckyfh1/women-using-scientific-instruments/

And it took off from there, with lots of re-tweets and follows on the board. As well as Alice’s “it’s a delight”, comments included “This is so great I may not sleep tonight”, “This gives me goosebumps” and “1st time I understand Pinterest”. I am not sure I have ever put together anything that seems to have had such an overwhelmingly positive response.

It is particularly interesting for me to have been part of this, given that I have sometimes found problems with the way that women in the history of science have been celebrated. Historical facts are rather too often ignored in favour of good stories and the creation of scientific heroes. Yet, the response to this set of images helps remind me how much women in science and science communication need to see themselves reflected in history.

It is also, as someone pointed out on Twitter with a link to this hilarious gallery of stock photography of women, a perfect response to the way women are so often depicted in the media. On my board I have eschewed the modern, posed images of “female scientist” and “woman with test tube”, and instead have largely gathered images of women who actually made use of the instruments they are shown with.

For me, it’s also important than only a few of these women are well known. This is not about creating heroines of science, or making any sort of claim beyond the fact that these particular women were there. It remains obvious that there are far more historical images of men with scientific instruments, and the images also show that women’s experience of science was often mediated by men. But this, and the fact that for much of history they were more likely to be part of the audience or figuring as a muse, should be recalled rather than swept under the carpet.

I, however, will remember the response to this simple collection. It was an excellent reminder that the past does not just belong to historians.

• Rebekah Higgitt will be speaking as part of a panel on Doing Women’s History in a Digital Age at the Women in Science Research Network conference this May. Comment here or tweet her @beckyfh with suggestions for the Pinterest board.

Women in science: a difficult history

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 15 October 2013.

Caricature of women attending a 19th-century meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science
Caricature of women attending a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science.


Today, as you’ll probably see from many tweets and blog posts, is Ada Lovelace Day. As the Finding Ada website explains, this

aims to raise the profile of women in science, technology, engineering and maths by encouraging people around the world to talk about the women whose work they admire.

Many of the talks and posts that mark the day will be about mentors and leaders in science today. Many will highlight the sometimes overlooked work of women in the history of STEM.

As I discussed on this blog last year, I find myself somewhat conflicted about Ada Lovelace Day and similar projects that focus on highlighting women in the history of science. On the plus side, I am wholeheartedly supportive of the attempt to encourage young women to think about scientific careers and to appreciate the work of women in the past, when opportunities were even more circumscribed. I am also glad to see stories from the history of science getting wider attention.

However, I am also wary. In celebratory mode, there is a tendency to overplay the work that the women highlighted actually did. There is no better example of this than Lovelace herself, who is wrongly credited with writing the first computer program. Likewise, just as with the heroic “great man” mode of history, focusing on individuals can hide the extent to which science is always a collaborative enterprise. Finally, although some women are rescued from the background shadows, other individuals and groups, equally deserving of attention, remain ignored.

As a historian, I am always likely to be suspicious of the use of history to serve particular purposes, whether that is to get more women into ormore funding for British science. Laudable though those aims might be, there is a risk that the historical evidence will be selected or distorted to suit the current purpose.

Certainly there were (are) remarkable women in all spheres of life, but the more important story is the one that explores why there were so few and how and why their talents – and those of whom we’ll never hear – were wasted. While it’s good to encourage girls and women to have the confidence to succeed in science or elsewhere, we also need them to look at the societies that have made, and still make, this a difficult task.

It always strikes me that should women of the past read some of what is written about them today, they would be hugely surprised and perhaps even offended. Before the 20th century, and often after, women who did scientific work tended to present themselves as a support to science or men rather than as pioneers. Although this is a reflection of the patriarchal society in which they lived, and they may sometimes have said things they did not privately believe in order to appear acceptable, it was their chosen self-presentation.

Recently, for example, a post was published that claimed that William Whewell had coined the word “scientist” to describe Mary Somerville. The response suggested that this is something that people really wanted to believe. However, while it is true that the first published appearance of the word was in a review of Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences (1834), neither Whewell nor Somerville would have dreamed of its being applied to her. Women, Somerville suggested, did not have original ideas, but the female mind might, as Whewell wrote, provide a “peculiar illumination” in explaining the ideas of others.

Somerville undertook aspects of science that were “women’s work”: writing, translation, popularisation. She also frequently highlighted her role as a wife and mother. Others, who approved of and supported her, did likewise. The American astronomer Maria Mitchell met Somerville and wrote:

I could not but admire Mrs Somerville as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science had not unfitted her for the drawing-room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother; the mind that has turned to rigid demonstration has not thereby lost its faith in those truths which figures will not prove.

Somerville and others underlined the distinction between men and women’s minds and appropriate spheres of activity because of the society in which they lived. Somerville was a supporter of women’s education and it was important to show that learning mathematics and the sciences would not turn young women into unattractive, barren spinsters. Those campaigning for women’s suffrage had a similar choice: emphasise your acceptable femininity or reinforce the stereotypes of Punch caricatures.

We like to think that we have moved on. In many ways we have: women in the UK can vote, be educated and enter careers and remain in them even after getting married or having children. Yet they are still radically underrepresented in the most highly paid and esteemed positions, and overrepresented at the other end of the scale. We are, as Alice Bell explained yesterday, still in a society that asks for female intelligence to be mitigated with the use of lipstick and a focus on domestic details.

By all means celebrate individuals, but understand them as they would have understood themselves. Make sure to think of the society in which they operated and look hard at what has and what has not changed.

Getting women into history and science is great, but where are the men?

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Now that Ada Lovelace day – which seeks to highlight inspirational stories about women in science – is safely over, I can mention something about it that concerns me. It is a broader concern than this one day, and is basically this: where were the men?

As I explained in an earlier post, I am all for seeking out women’s stories in history, because it gives us a different and equally important perspective on how science happens. I also showed, in the context of Wikipedia editing, that it is hugely important for women to be making and sharing knowledge. However, I am concerned by the fact that the two things seem so often to have to go together. Women should be writing about women.

In fact, men and women should be writing about men and women (and boys and girls, animals and instruments, seas and skies, or whatever). I think it would be hard to disagree with this point, and yet so often we find ourselves positioned against this.

I very happily went along last Tuesday to host an Ada Lovelace special for PubSci, to hear several women speaking about the women in history that helped provide inspiration in their scientific careers. But I would have loved it if there had been one or two men speaking about women too. (Though many thanks to the men who organised and attended the event!)

In my academic career, writing about gender is something that has both had an appeal and something I have purposely avoided. After having written my undergraduate dissertation on women in 17th-century drama, I was keen not to find myself pigeonholed as a woman who only wrote about women and found myself for some time focusing fairly squarely on the men of science who formed the core of my postgraduate research.

Fairly or unfairly, my sense was that this reinforcement of the view that women’s history is by and for women can serve to trivialise both the makers and subjects of that research. It becomes a niche, when it should be an integral part.

The same danger can arise when all the work and publicity about bringing women into research/academia/politics/business is delivered by women. If we agree that it is important that female voices should be much better represented in a host of important and influential places, then that is a concern for everyone.

That it should be a shared concern is the reason why I do not agree with those (men) who complain about women-only shortlists, training sessions aimed at women, or the need to create “binders of women” that can be waved under the nose of politicians suffering female-selective blindness. But these things should be endorsed, created and delivered by men as well as women, until such future time that these particular distinctions cease to hold such significance in the workplace.

Why women fade into the background on Wikipedia

Cross-posted from The H Word.

Wikipedia front page, 19 October 2012

On Friday afternoon, the Royal Society hosts a group edit-a-thon aimed at improving Wikipedia articles about women in science. It is timed to link with Ada Lovelace Day earlier this week, an event that seeks to share stories about inspirational women in science.

Admitting that Wikipedia is a first port of call for most people looking for basic, and sometimes not so basic, biographical information, the event is an attempt to improve the quality of entries and raise the profile of women in science and engineering, both past and present. Not simply relying on other online resources, participants will be able to make use of the Royal Society’s unique collections, as well as its library staff and representatives of Wikipedia UK.

The society’s library is enjoying its 350th anniversary this year, although it is only for the past 67 years that women have been admitted as fellows. Despite increasing efforts to ensure a level playing field, female fellows are still a tiny minority, being only 5% of the total. Awareness of this disparity undoubtedly makes the Royal Society keen to focus on celebrating successful women in science and on inspiring the next generation.

The event itself raises some interesting themes and ideas. The most obvious is the fact that the contribution of women to science, and elsewhere, can be made more visible. Our view of what counts in thehistory of science is very much influenced by older assumptions and past prejudices. Prizes, publications, professional positions and fellowships are key markers, and automatically lead to commemoration of achievements in obituaries, which are the first drafts of future biographies. Women were, of course, generally barred from such recognition until all too recently.

Other markers, therefore, need to be sought and added into our accounts, and Wikipedia is the kind of cumulative and fluid environment in which this can be done.

When looking for the women, and for those other markers of eminence, researchers find themselves beginning to think about what counts as an important contribution to science in a slightly different way. There is, necessarily, less emphasis on the traditional roll call of theoretical advances (of the Copernicus-Kepler-Newton-Einstein variety) and an appreciation of the essential contribution that collectors, experimentalists, technicians, writers, translators, teachers and calculators have made.

This, by rights, should lead to the widening of the net of scientific biography to include a whole load of underappreciated men as well. Some, such as top instrument makers, were seen as being hugely skilful, knowledgeable and important in their day but are often poorly represented on Wikipedia. Others were not given the opportunities to be recognised or remembered, with lower class or non-European men being, like women, essentially disenfranchised.

This may appear to work against the spirit of the day, but is equally important in terms of appreciating the way science has really operated in history and how it generates knowledge, meaning, agreement and conflict across diverse societies today. For British women, however, it is possible that the most important aspect of the event will not be the making available of a little extra information about women scientists, but the focus on women as Wikipedia editors.

The dominance of men in the Wikipedia online community is well-documented and something that the company is attempting to address through its Gender Gap project. While coming in somewhat ahead of the proportion of female fellows of the Royal Society, in 2009 female Wikipedians were only around 13% of the active community.

Research suggests that this matters for a number of reasons, principally that male and female editors tend to focus on different content areas, that the coverage of topics more likely to be of interest to female users of Wikipedia is seen as inferior, and that Wikipedia is missing out on the successful development of its social and community areas.

There is also, particularly around more controversial topics, a tendency to macho behaviour among editors. Women, it turns out, are much less likely to edit articles in these areas and, if they do, their edits are more likely to be rejected. These rejections are often not to do with factual content, but differences in tone and approach.

This experience means that these women are very likely to back away from the whole project. In other words, women’s voices and views are seriously underrepresented, even when they might consider themselves experts in a particular area.

The Royal Society’s edit-a-thon will include a range of well-qualified and motivated women with an interest in making themselves, as well as women in the history of science, heard. Wikipedia will certainly benefit from developing an atmosphere that is more welcoming to women like these.

Finding women in the history of science

Cross-posted from The H Word (first published on 16 October 2012 – Ada Lovelace Day)

Margaret Bryan and her daughters
Margaret Bryan, portrayed here with her daughters, was a writer of popular scientific books and taught sciences at her school for girls. Source: Wikimedia

Today is Ada Lovelace Day, which has been marked annually since 2009 as a celebration of women in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. The Finding Ada website explains that “The aim is to create new role models for girls and women in these male-dominated fields by raising the profile of women in STEM”.

Readers of some of my earlier posts – on the Tesla museum campaign, for example, or on whiggish and triumphalist histories – will be aware that I do not see the celebration of heroes in history and science as an uncomplicated matter. This is because, all too often, lionising a particular individual can lead to dismissing the contribution of others and, beyond that, a lack of appreciation of the very collaborative – or aggregating – nature of scientific work.

In fact, despite being named after a woman born in 1815, Ada Lovelace Day is less about heroines and history and more about sharing stories about women who have inspired others’ careers in STEM. This might be because of their achievements in science or because of their roles as teachers and mentors. Such factors can be of huge individual significance and, given that women are still sadly in the minority in the upper echelons of science, there is a lot of good to be done.

I have to admit, though, that I find the choice of Lovelace as the marker for this event slightly peculiar. She has become something of a cult heroine, claimed as the writer of the first computer programme, produced for Charles Babbage‘s never-realised Analytical Engine. But it is only very recently, with a lot of hindsight, that she has been an inspirational figure.

It is clear that Lovelace had a deep interest in and feeling for Babbage’s work and an ability in mathematics that few women in the early 19th century were able to demonstrate. However, it is also clear that Babbage indulged and flattered her because she had wealth and influence and, frankly, was one of a number of routes through which he could advertise his scheme. It is not the case that her programme was the first written for Babbage’s machine and there has been much doubt cast on the significance and originality of what she did produce.

One would think that there are many women who made more significant contributions in the history of science who might provide a better model. And yet, there is some good to be done in recalling Lovelace, and in seeking out women in the history of science, most of whom, before the 20th century and on the face of it, do not make the grade to be placed in the Dictionary of Scientific Biography without special pleading.

Because of their lack of education, and society’s expectations of their role as home-makers and child-rearers, there are vanishingly small numbers of pre-20th century women who made clearly-attributable, original and influential contributions to the content of scientific theory. However, recalling my earlier mention of the collaborative and aggregating nature of science, it is perhaps only our inheritance of older perspectives that leads us to place such work on a higher pedestal than other contributions.

It takes all kinds of skills and input from people from across society for scientific ideas to be developed, used and shared. And what is an idea without this? Many of the women who are recalled in the history of science were translators, teachers, writers, collectors and illustrators. These were the kinds of roles that women could undertake without disapproval, and they are ones that really are essential to the development of science and should not be too quickly dismissed.

Seeking women in the history of science, we find a significant number who were able to make their mark as assistants or collaborators to their fathers, husbands and brothers. In many cases the true significance of their input may be hard to uncover but, even if simply amanuenses, secretaries or sounding-boards, their contribution may have been absolutely necessary. We will also find some – a very few – who took on paid work of a scientific nature: undertaking calculations, perhaps, or making instruments. Skilled work that played its part in developing a society dependent on science and technology.

Lovelace made her mark both in the early 19th century and today as someone who was enthused by and championed a particular technological and mathematical vision. Cheerleaders in influential places have always been essential too. But today, as I host a Finding Ada event, I will be recalling the many, apparently minor, roles that women have taken on, for science is not just made by the big names. I will also be celebrating the fact that today, at last, the big names may increasingly be female ones.

Mr Punch does transits, constellations and coiffures

Punch, or the London Charivari is a wonderful source for history of science. It is impossible to think of a popular magazine today including jokes that span politics, science, the arts, classical reference and what we might call observational comedy. As with the image posted on the Ptak Science Books blog the other day, the editors of Punch had high expectations of their readers’ ability to recognise not just a handful of scientific celebrities but a while range of figures from the scientific community. Those of us who have commented on John’s post are struggling to be sure of the identities of some of those represented, or to explain just what the mathematician is doing with a fish that has so shocked a zero (have a look – and let me know if you can explain!).

In the comments, I pointed to the existence of the SciPer Index, created at the HPS department in Leeds between 1999 and 2007. This indexed short runs of sixteen 19th-century periodicals, creating a online resource and three important books.[1] While the project suffered from being at the head of the game – being superseded in many ways by mass digitisation projects, which cover much longer runs of periodicals with full images – it remains immensely impressive in terms of the added value created by the project members. This is not just a word-searchable set of texts, but a real index, explication and glossary.

For something as visual and complex as Punch, this is exactly what is required. The image on John Ptak’s site is nothing to a search engine until it is described in words. And the SciPer Index not only describes, but identifies and connects. It is not, of course, infallible: the dedicated scholar-indexers occasionally missed or misidentified references, and had to make complicated choices about just what we, or 19th-century writers, define as ‘science’, but it is the only thing I know that really spells out just how prevalent, and how intricate, such references were at this period.

I often come back to Punch, especially as I was lucky enough to inherit a set of bound 19th-century volumes. Because I have recently been thinking about the historic transits of Venus, I was looking today at the 1874 and 1882 volumes, knowing from Jessica Ratcliffe’s The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain (2008), that there are some great illustrations, revealing popular interest and the imperial and nationalistic agendas bound up with the transit expeditions. More of those another time – one will certainly be making its way into the exhibition at the Royal Observatory this spring. What struck me today, leafing through these volumes, is just how many references to science are there each year. Take a look at the SciPer Index for earlier volumes to see what I mean.

I will share just a couple of 1874 astronomical examples (a year that saw a comet and a transit of Venus), otherwise I could be here all night….


I hold, whatever PROCTOR writes,
Out-door observing, these chill nights,
A snare to the unwary

Long though you gaze into the sky
(Not quite, I hope, cigarless),
What chance of seeing meteors fly
Through a heaven that hangs starless?

A blazing fire in bright steel bars
Best observe, after dining;
And study – if you must have stars –
Those ‘neath arched eyebrows shining.

Transit of Venus snugly watch.
With comforts that enhance it:
There is no place like home to catch
Your Venus in her transit.

Let who will, ‘mid Kerguelen’s snows,
Seek freezing-post and thawing-room,
My Venus one short transit knows –
From dining-room to drawing-room.

Let me observe her, by lamp-light,
In chaise longue, soft and lazy,
Her witch-face framed in hair-wreaths bright,
Enough to drive one crazy.

Sweet star of eve, whose beauties blend
With foam of vaporous laces,
That like a cloudy setting lend
A mystery to thy graces,

Heightening the charms they half enwrap –
Sweet star too of the morning,
In muslins fresh, and pretty cap
A prettier head adorning!

Yes, “Vive l’Astronomie,” say I –
But what I add between us is –
While our Home-Heavens can still supply
Observers with their Venuses!

Not the best poetry – though kudos for rhyming “Venuses” with “between us is” – and rather sickly sweet than funny, perhaps. There is little to hint at the strides that women were beginning to make in education and public life at this date. However, this image ‘Constellations and Coiffures’ does something distinctly different:

The joke, of course, is about the fashionable new hairstyle, but it takes its range of astronomical references for granted. A telescopic chignon was, of course, apt for a comet, ‘long-haired’ being the literal meaning, though please note too the telescope earrings. Ether, nebulae and cluster are also thrown into the accompanying poem. At the end, “Berenice’s hair” refers to Coma Berenices, formerly part of Leo and now a constellation in its own right. It was named after Queen Berenice II of Egypt, who swore to sacrifice her long, blond hair to Aphrodite if her husband Ptolemy III Euergetes returned safely from war. He did, and she placed her hair in the temple. It disappeared and, the story goes, the court astronomer, Conon of Samos, appeased the angry king by claiming that the gods were so pleased by the hair that they had taken it and placed it in the heavens.

A source of early feminism Punch is not, but as a source for developing an understanding of the role, meaning and cultural baggage of science among the Victorian middles classes it is, undoubtedly, essential reading.



[1] These were Science in the Nineteenth-Century Periodical: Reading the Magazine of Nature (CUP, 2004), Culture and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Media (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004) and Science Serialized: Representations of the Sciences in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals (Cambridge, MA: M.I.T. Press, 2004).

The Royal Soc and British Ass

Next week I will be speaking at the British Science Festival in Birmingham in a session celebrating the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society. I will be talking about the Society in the 19th century, which gives me the chance to compare and contrast its role with that of the many other scientific institutions that first saw light in the 1800s. These include the Geological Society (1807), Royal Astronomical Society (1820), Royal Geographical Society (1830), many provincial societies and the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1831) – organisers of the annual science festival and recently renamed as the British Science Association. The tradition of the annual meeting of the BAAS (or BSA), usually held in September, goes back to the very beginning. I have never been before, but I am interested to see how recognisable today’s festival would be to those who enjoyed the original “Philosophers’ Picnic”. Read More »