WHAT ARE WOMEN IN SCIENCE LIKE?
By J. L. Greger
Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and Dr. Strangelove created an image of scientists - as aging, un-athletic, males with anti-social tendencies. Comic strips changed the image of scientists to be handsome, male superheroes with big egos (like Batman, Iron Man, and the Avengers). Now TV shows (like CSI, Bones, and NCIS), feature attractive, young women as scientists.
Have the faces of scientists really changed that much?
To a certain extent, the changes in the images of scientists in fiction reflect reality. In 1958, women earned 8% of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in the US. In 1985 and 2006, women earned 27% and 40%, respectively, of the doctorates awarded in these fields. Women held 4.5% of the full professorships in science and engineering in 1973 and 17.9% of the full professorships in those fields in 2003.
Why do I as an author care?
Scientific discoveries offer great ideas for novels, plays, and short stories. Tidbits of science can add a sense of reality to a novel. Many strong-willed heroines can be found among the women scientists of the twentieth century. I’m profiling two famous women scientists and two more typical of women professors prior to 1980 in this blog.
Marie Curie won two Nobel Prizes (physics in 1903 and chemistry in 1911) and was the first woman to become a professor at the Sorbonne. Yet the French press persecuted her because of an affair with Paul Langevin, a prominent scientist in his own right. Never mind, she was a widow at the time of the affair.
Rosalind Franklin helped to define the fine molecular structures of DNA with her meticulous X-ray crystallography (a way of picturing the location of atoms in molecules). If she had not died at thirty-seven years of age in 1958, many wonder if she, rather than Maurice Wilkins, would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick in 1962.
Elizabeth McCoy was a microbiologist. In 1946 the New York Times ran this headline “Wisconsin University Girl Wins Patent on an Industrial Solvent.” At that time, the “girl” was 43 years old and was only the second woman (outside those in nursing or home economics) to achieve a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one reported her response, but she was known for her salty vocabulary.
Hellen Linkswiler, a nutrition professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was more ladylike than McCoy, even though her background was probably rougher. As a child, she ate moldy bread because there was no other food in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years. In 1960, a banker refused her a mortgage for a home, even though she was full professor, unless a man cosigned the loan.
With a little digging into the history of science, you can uncover many other interesting characters and weird plot twists for your novels. Have fun digging!
Janet Greger is the author of the medical thriller Coming Flu, published by Oak Tree Press in 2012. Sara Almquist, an epidemiologist, is the lead character.
For more information on Coming Flu and J. L. Greger, go to http://www.jlgreger.com.