By Amber S. Fair
I excitedly rounded the corner to the wax museum’s next exhibit. I’d passed by artists, dictators, presidents, Popes, and Hollywood hunks. Now it was time to feast my eyes on the one group of wax individuals that meant the most to me, the scientists. I could only imagine what great contributors to science would be represented. How would Margaret Mead or Jane Goodall look as wax figures? I couldn’t wait to see.
As I turned the corner that would become one of the most important corners of my life, I saw Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Galileo Galilei, Sigmund Freud, and Bill Gates. I puzzled for a second at the lack of female representation. Where was Jane? She must be around the next corner! No, no Jane, only glamour girls. Why wasn’t even Madame Curie -- the one female scientist that trips off most people’s tongues when asked to name a female scientist -- represented? From then on, I have noticed a disproportionate, if not downright, lack of female representation in science-related exhibits, even among the most respected historical institutions. How could this happen?
Science has been a male domain for many years, but for how long have women really been active in the natural sciences? Quite simply, for as long as humankind has been involved in learning about the world! As far back as 4,000 years ago, in ancient Egypt, one of the earliest names recorded in science was the priestess/astronomer En Hedu’Anna. Without a doubt, women were posing questions and experimenting long before any true written record of their efforts. While they may not have achieved the fame that men have, women’s contributions are just as inspirational.
In 1849, Elizabeth Blackwell was the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, making her a pioneer in the field. Initially, she was turned down by many institutions. The Geneva Medical College of New York, believing that her request was a joke, mockingly endorsed her. Her acceptance there was greeted with dismay by other students, but she soon developed several allies despite the discrimination. After successfully practicing in England, Dr. Blackwell returned to New York where hospitals and clinics refused to hire her. She was even denied office space to set up a private practice. So she purchased a house and began her practice there.
In 1852, Elizabeth published The Laws of Life: with Special Reference to the Physical Education of Girls. Soon, her sister Emily also earned a medical degree. With Dr. Marie E. Zakrzewska, a Polish physician, the Blackwells opened the New York Infirmary for Indigent Woman and Children, staffed entirely by women. By 1868, they had additionally opened a women’s medical college which they ran in the hospital. The institution functioned until 1899, when women were finally allowed to enter Cornell University’s Medical School. Dr. Blackwell eventually returned to England, where she lectured as a professor of gynecology and preventative medicine, eventually founding the esteemed National Health Society of London and the London Medical School for Women.
Another woman who made unprecedented strides in science was biologist Rachel Carson. Her landmark book, Silent Spring, generated national attention on the dangers of chemical pesticides and was a significant catalyst for the U.S. environmental movement in the second part of the 20th century. Despite the pesticide industry’s attempts to discredit her, Carson continued to advocate for a reduced use of environmental agents and increased awareness of their negative effects. Today there are frequent collaborations between scientists, physicians, public health advocates and community activists who are unified around the purpose of determining and changing the associations between the environment and health.
Where would we be without scientists like Rachel Carson and Elizabeth Blackwell? While these women may not be as well known as some of the men in science, they made significant advances for the cause of women and the health of the nation.
As a scientist, I am inspired not only by the famous women of science, but also by those who are closest to me. Because I have had strong women scientists involved in my life, I have formed a passion for biology and chemistry. Academic Excellence Director Nancy Cox- Konopelski showed me an enthusiasm for chemistry that was untapped until I entered college. Professor Karen Ottemann opened up a world of bacterial study that I would have never known existed had I not been in her lab as an undergraduate researcher. Ottemann’s lab is predominately female, which is still unusual in the modern research world. Seeing these women with their advanced degrees inspires me to continue on the path towards mine. While these women may not be nationally famous, without their impact, and the impact of others like them, I, like many other female students, may not have had the opportunities we have today.
Women have always made contributions to the advancement of equality in science and humanity. All of these women faced the same scientific challenges as men in their fields. But they also had to deal with the enormous burden of discrimination. Their achievements have left an extraordinary heritage for us. It is a legacy filled with passion, creativity, and knowledge that matches that of any man in science.
Every year now, we have thousands of women earning advanced degrees in the natural sciences. They find inspiration both from famous women and from their personal connections, as we all share a common lineage. Our past has helped build a future full of hope. It is up to us to continue on this path. One day, there will no longer be an empty spot in that wax museum waiting for a woman’s name. Instead, there will be a woman as recognizable as Einstein, proudly standing side-by-side with her brothers.
Amber Sue Fair is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz where she received a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. She is applying to graduate degree programs in the natural sciences and is hoping to continue work on women’s health issues as well as cultivating the interests of other young women in science and math. Amber was a NWHN intern in Spring of 2005.