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Archive for Sunday, October 10, 2004

Women scientists faced barriers, blazed trails

October 10, 2004

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Mary Creese just finished the second volume of a study on a thousand 19th-century women of science.

In it, Creese, who once worked as a research chemist at the Kansas University School of Pharmacy, and husband Tom, KU associate professor of mathematics, sketch the lives and works of 177 Western European scientists.

It's titled "Ladies in the Laboratory II." To be included, the women scientists had to have published at least one article listed in the London Royal Society Catalogue of Scientific Papers, 1800-1900.

The women faced enormous barriers, making the thumbnail biographies both exhausting and exhilarating to read.

The resistance to their entry into science was institutionalized. European universities didn't take women as students until the 1880s and 1890s.

The resistance was sometimes familial. For example, Maude Delap, an Irish marine biologist who collected Atlantic jellyfish and could handle a boat in dangerous and remote sea caves, turned down a position at a marine biological lab at age 40.

Her father thought the only valid reason for a daughter to leave home was marriage.

Other times, the women faced social and political barriers to their success.

Madeleine Pelletier born of a poor Paris shopkeeper, cut off her hair and dressed as a man in order to walk safely through the Paris streets at night and attend meetings of feminist groups.

She became a medical doctor and an advocate of birth control in a conservative, Catholic society. In 1939, she was arrested on an abortion charge and locked up in a mental institution, where she died six months later.

Rina Monti, a pioneer in freshwater biology, was ousted from her university by Mussolini and the fascists, who didn't want women in such positions.

But Creese also points to the abundant successes in these careers.

The Irish marine biologist preserved for a Dublin museum a 16-foot beaked whale washed up on a beach. No complete specimen of it ever had been preserved.

She sent the museum the head and flippers, then buried the rest. She was asked for that a couple of years later, so she dug up her asparagus bed.

The daughter of the poor Paris shopkeeper was France's first female psychiatric intern.

The biologist fired by Mussolini was the first female full professor in the sciences to hold a post at an Italian university.

For Creese, Therese von Bayern is among the book's most remarkable and interesting women.

The only sister of Bavaria's last king, her interest in natural history took her through Russia, Brazil, South America, Mexico and the West Indies. Her constant companions were a female attendant, a trained taxidermist and, for protection, a cavalry officer. She discovered four new fish species in upland lakes of Mexico and wrote several travel books.

A Swiss psychiatrist and friend of von Bayern saw her in 1919, after her brother had been dethroned. He wrote that "we were greatly moved by the spectacle of this old lady -- humble, learned, and aristocratic -- always gay and courageous, despite the misfortunes of her family."

The new book reminds us that sooner or later, no matter our social status, we all experience a narrowing of life's possibilities. At those points, our courage shows in our laughter and our wisdom in making meaning out of misfortune.

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