Women and science, a lesson from history

Dame Harriette Chick at work. Image credit: Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust.

Dr Nina Pearlman reflects on the changing role for women in science, and how early pioneers fought back against the political climate of their time to conduct groundbreaking research.

Amongst these scientists is Dame Harriette Chick (1875–1977) who is credited with finding the cause and cure for rickets. Her many contributions to preventative medicine were recognised with both a CBE and a DBE.

Let’s go back to the late 19th century…..

In 1887 evolutionary biologist, physiologist and friend of Darwin, George Romanes, sought to find biological grounding for his claim that women are intellectually inferior to men. While he found no fault with women’s education as such, in no way did he think women could outperform men intellectually. In ‘Mental Differences between Men and Women’[1] he writes, ‘[s]eeing as the average brain-weight of women is about five ounces less than that of men, on merely anatomical grounds we should be prepared to expect a marked inferiority of intellectual power in the former’.

This sentiment did not dwindle as the women’s movement gained momentum into the twentieth century. Rather the contrary, anti-suffragists sought to attack the legitimacy of the suffrage movement on the grounds of mental dysfunction, once again grounding their arguments in biology. In a letter to the Editor of in 1912 [2] Sir Almroth Wright had written at length an article questioning women’s claim for intellectual, economic and political equality. He writes ‘no doctor can ever lose sight of the fact that the mind of a woman is always threatened with danger from the reverberations of her physiological emergencies’. This, being one of the milder of Wright’s statements.

Sir Almroth Wright was a well-known British bacteriologist and immunologist. Given he was a vocal advocate of preventative medicine, I am led to ponder what he would have thought of Dame Harriette Chick when she was starting out.

Chick, a UCL alumna, pursued a career in biochemistry and bacteriology. These were at the time emerging disciplines. In 1904, two years before Wright was knighted, Chick became the first woman to receive a fellowship from the Lister Institute of Preventative Medicine. Here she made lasting contributions until well after she had officially retired. Her major breakthroughs included her work on the process of disinfection in collaboration with Institute director Sir Charles Martin, and prevention of deficiency diseases due to malnutrition and poor sanitation.

After the First World War, Chick travelled to Vienna on behalf of the Medical Research Council and the Lister Institute to find a cause and a cure for rickets, the disease that caused bone deformities. The severe conditions in Austria were conducive to experimental research. Chick and her colleagues dispelled the theory that rickets was caused by infection, like tuberculosis and demonstrated the benefits of vitamin D for curing rickets.

Chick’s pioneering research addressed pressing public health concerns of the early 20th century: nutrition, sanitation, clean water and the spread of diseases.

So, how did Chick achieve what she did with the odds stacked against her?

By the 1990s the scientific community was uncovering the missing histories of women scientists. Disciplines such as botany and geology, for example, had long traditions of amateur contributors, often women, alongside professionals. The uncertain career paths offered in emerging disciplines, such as biochemistry, were less attractive to men. New disciplines often had less defined entry paths or involved applied research that carried less academic prestige. These circumstances all provided opportunities for women.

Significantly, the role of some male influencers in facilitating independent research by women, as opposed to merely classifying them as assistants, is often cited as instrumental in female scientists’ successes.[3] Sir Charles Martin of the Lister Institute was one such example. With Martin’s encouragement Dame Harriette Chick led big budget research projects in an emerging field that would have no doubt been coveted by many male peers. Arguably, in the early decades of the 20th century, it wasn’t enough for a woman to be outstanding intellectually, innovative and make groundbreaking discoveries. It was necessary to have support from a man in a position of influence who was keen to level the playing field.

explores the phenomena of women’s success across a number of disciplines including art, archaeology, education and politics alongside the sciences. Despite the many success stories — there were many to choose from, success was by no means the norm, and even when these were recognised one can still detect an echo of Sir Almroth Wright’s 1912 sentiments.

By the 1960s the question of why there are so few women scientists was one of popular debate. A newspaper article[4] in the Melbourne Herald (1966), with this question as its title, sought to celebrate the achievements of British crystallographer Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. Lonsdale’s career, like Chick’s, also benefited from the ongoing support of an enlightened man — Nobel Prize winner Sir William Bragg (physics, 1915), today we’d call him a feminist. Bragg endorsed Lonsdale professionally and even facilitated her return to work by securing financial support to pay for domestic help. This was despite the fact that Lonsdale resolved a 60-year dispute amongst chemists concerning the structure of benzene, aged only 24, and in doing so proved Bragg wrong.

Lonsdale became the first female professor at UCL and received many more accolades from the scientific community thereafter. Nonetheless this 1966 article starts off by reminding Melbourne Herald readers that ‘[b]ack in 1863 a social science congress in Britain found it necessary to state that “if girls were encouraged to use their brains the excitement would NOT cause insanity”.’ Sadly, the author herself found it necessary to state that while American feminists give pause to question this, thankfully there are women — ie, Lonsdale, ‘whose achievements are so illustrious but who remain so eminently sensible, that equality for all doesn’t seem such an impossible dream.’

Collectively, Lonsdale’s journey and that of Chick’s along with those of artists, archeologists, educationists and political activists featured in the exhibition tell us a lot about what levelling the playing field means, the forms it can take, and its implications for exclusions other than those based on gender.

Dr Nina Pearlman is Head of UCL Art Collections and curator of (UCL Octagon Gallery till February 2019)

To learn more about the complex and exciting journeys of UCL women to equality and to making radical and longstanding contributions to knowledge, society and culture visit at UCL on till February 2019. Free.

21st November 2018: an afternoon and evening of performances and talks exploring the history of gender equality at UCL and its contemporary representations. Free. Booking required.

This piece was originally posted for UCL Museums and Collections blog, October 25 2018 and is reposted with permission of the author

Image credit: Wellcome Images, a website operated by Wellcome Trust, a global charitable foundation based in the United Kingdom. Refer to Wellcome blog post


[1] George Romanes, ‘Mental Differences between Men and Women (1887)’, in edited by Dale Spender, New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987. First published in May 1887.

[2] Sir Almroth Wright ‘Letter to the Editor of on Militant Suffragettes (1912), in D. Spender, pp.335–334.

[3] See, for example, Mary R.S. Creese, ‘British women of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries who contributed to research in the chemical sciences’, 1991, 24, pp.275–305. For comparable stories in other disciplines explore the women artists featured in the exhibition. In the arts, the story of the Slade School of Fine Art is the starting point. The Slade was the first art school to admit women on equal terms to men from its foundation in 1871, seven years before women were able to obtain degrees. The Slade flourished and went on to influence women’s integration into wider College life and society with many Slade women working across disciplines or involved in socio-political reform.

[4] ‘Why so few women become scientists’, crystallographer Dame Kathleen Lonsdale interviewed by Ruth Jowett for in 1966. UCL Library Special Collections, Lonsdale Papers A21.



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