March 24th, 2009

Celebrating women in science

I promised I would blog about a woman scientist today. It is Ada Lovelace Day on the net and it's Women's History Month in several countries (Australia and the US are the noisiest) and I pledged I would post.

In fields like Art and Political History, individuals are prompted and we know the stories of enough women to be able to whip a name out of the air. Many people like to whip out the name Bella Guerin, simply because she graduated first out of a long line of women. No-on ever talks about her career or achievements – they're more interested in saying "Wow, a university started letting women take degrees." Or I could return to home turf and post about one of the very few women we know if who were also scientist. Hildegard of Bingen is always chosen for things like this, though, and this is the month for celebrating all women, not the already-well-known.

What to do? My first port of call was a website called Bright Sparcs. This website was set up so that all those forgotten women could be remembered (at least for Aussie scientific history – the site only covers scientists and it does better with men than women, but it exists, which is the main thing for me today) and women who are active now are also listed, so that they can be celebrated before they die. Another handy place is here.

Neither are as big a databases as they could be. Even on Bright Sparcs, there are still very few scientists and many other areas women have done fine work in are under-represented. It's there, though, and it has a bunch of bios.

It's a good way to find out more, too. I took the first dead scientist who I happened up, just to meet someone new and celebrate achievements I knew nothing of. The woman I happened across in the course of random clicking on the Bright Sparcs site was Ethel Irene McLennan (1891-1983).

She was a botanist and plant pathologist and was born in Williamstown, Victoria, before it was part of Melbourne. For 24 years she was Associate Professor of Botany at the University of Melbourne (my own undergraduate University – though I didn't study Botany). For North American readers, Associate Professor is a lot more senior here than at your end of the world. She never became a full professor, but she was an outstanding scientist. I want to speculate that she was stuck at Assoc. Professorship because of bias, but I have no evidence, just a bit of curiosity. At a time of university expansion and limited access to higher degrees, why didn't she become a Professor or Reader? It may have been discrimination. It may have been the needs of her family. Or it may have been something entirely different.

Her specialist area was mycology and plant pathology – very important in Australia.

How did she get to where she got? Well, she was awarded her BSc in 1914 and was Demonstrator and Lecturer from 1915 to 1931. In 1921, she received her Doctor of Science. For all that she stayed in the same university and did all the right things, that's not a matter of international level talent being well rewarded and instantly rewarded. And there was no doubt she had the talent. In 1927 she took out the David Syme Prize.

In 1926 she took up a Fellowship to Scandinavia, which I find fascinating. Such a different climate to ours and such different plant life. I'd love to know what she learned there, but it' only recorded in scholarly articles and botany as a specialist subject is something I don't know enough about.

Why do I think she might have had a bit of a fight on her hands for large chinks of her career? We, she ended up President of the Australian Federation of University Women. It was important back then as a support group for female academics.

If you want to know more about Ada Lovelace Day or read blog posts about more exciting women in science (they would be exciting if we had more information about them – we're not talking boring lives, here, we're talking lack of media frenzy and popularisation) then pay a visit to the main site for the Ada Lovelace celebration. You may need to allow a bit of time.