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Women in Science and the Matilda Effect

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

One of the world’s greatest scientists, male or female, Marie Curie, was denied membership in the French Academy of Science in 1911 on the grounds that she was a woman.

One of the world’s greatest scientists, male or female, Marie Curie, was denied membership in the French Academy of Science in 1911 on the grounds that she was a woman.

To see male chauvinism in full cry look no further than the history of science. In many cases, the work of female scientists has been ignored or attributed to male colleagues in a system known as the Matilda Effect.

Margaret Rossiter’s Campaign

Matilda Joslyn Gage was a nineteenth century campaigner for votes for women and for Native American rights. Another of her interests was proper recognition for the roles of women in science. In 1883, she wrote that “No assertion in reference to women is more common than that she possesses no inventive or mechanical genius … Although women’s scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.”

More recently, (May 2013) Jane J. Lee wrote in National Geographic that “Over the centuries, female researchers have had to work as ‘volunteer’ faculty members, seen credit for significant discoveries they’ve made assigned to male colleagues, and been written out of textbooks.”

Cornell University Professor Margaret Rossiter has made it her life’s work to peel back the layers of male privilege that have been laid over the contribution of women to science. In 1993, Prof. Rossiter wrote a paper on the subject and coined the phrase The Matilda Effect in remembrance of Ms. Gage.

Matilda Joslyn Gage .

Matilda Joslyn Gage .

Trota di Ruggiero

We can reach back into the twelfth century for an early example of the Matilda Effect.

The Trotula was the definitive compendium dealing with women’s health for almost 500 years. It was written at a time when, in Italy, women were encouraged to be educated and have careers. Later, women were barred from getting an education.

One such woman was Trota di Ruggiero. She became a doctor and taught at Salerno University, which was at the time the pinnacle of medical knowledge. It was here that she wrote the Trotula, but her authorship was not acknowledged until the sixteenth century. Prior to that, it was assumed the text had been written by a man.

Today, Trota di Ruggiero is recognized as being the world’s first obstetrician and gynecologist.

The Trotula.

The Trotula.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Thanks to Space.com we know that pulsars “are spherical, compact objects that are about the size of a large city but contain more mass than the Sun.” They were discovered in 1967 by Jocelyn Bell Burnell, although the Space.com article neglects to mention this.

Ms. Bell Burnell was born in 1943 in Northern Ireland and attended Lurgan College at which girls were not allowed to study science; cooking and cross-stitching yes, but not science. Ms. Bell broke the taboo and was one of the first females to study science.

From there it was Glasgow University and a degree in physics. This took her to Cambridge University and work as a research assistant in radio astronomy under the supervision of astronomer Martin Ryle and thesis adviser Antony Hewish.

She was examining the print outs coming from a radio telescope when she noticed an anomaly; it was the signal of an entirely new object in the Universe. Her discovery of pulsars created a sensation when it was revealed in Nature in February 1968.

Six years later, Hewish and Ryle received the Nobel Prize for Physics, but not Jocelyn Bell Burnell. Many scientists felt she had been treated unfairly by the Nobel committee. One of them, astronomer Iosif Shklovsky, told her “You have made the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century.

Alice Augusta Ball

In 1921, the U.S. Surgeon General reported that conditions in the Hawaiian leprosy centre were improving: “The morale of the patients in the hospital is excellent and in striking contrast to that of former days when a leprous person was doomed to a long term of isolation, in most cases to be terminated only by death.”

That life in Honolulu’s Kalihi Hospital was getting better was due to the work of a young African-American woman called Alice Ball.

Born in Seattle in 1892, Ms. Ball excelled in chemistry at high school. She graduated with degrees in pharmacy and chemistry from the University of Washington in 1914. She went on to pursue a master’s degree at the University of Hawaii. This at a time when the most that African-American women could aspire to was working as a domestic servant.

Alice Ball.

Alice Ball.

She was researching the properties of kava root and this brought her into contact with Dr. Harry Hollmann who was trying to develop a leprosy therapy using chaulmoogra tree oil. But the oil created intolerable nausea when administered orally.

Alice Ball developed an injectable form that by-passed the nausea problem and led to many lepers being discharged from the hospital. Tragically, she died after a laboratory accident in 1916. She was just 24.

The President of the University of Hawaii, Dr. Arthur Dean, carried on Ms. Ball’s research. In the early 1920s, he published the results without crediting Alice Ball’s fundamental breakthrough. Over the objections of Dr. Hollmann, he even called the therapy the Dean Method.

Dean happily collected all the accolades for developing a treatment for leprosy that was not supplanted for two decades until antibiotics proved more successful. Alice Ball’s contribution was forgotten until late in the twentieth century when researchers uncovered her crucial work.

If you believe the history books, science is a guy thing. Discoveries are made by men, which spur further innovation by men, followed by acclaim and prizes for men. But too often, there is an unsung woman genius who deserves just as much credit.”

Medium

More Matilda Effect Candidates

The selection of the women profiled here is entirely arbitrary; there are scores of others who suffered the indignity of having their work discredited or outright stolen.

Wisconsin-based bacterial geneticist Esther Lederberg made key discoveries that would lead to genetic engineering. He husband, Joshua, based his research on Esther’s findings. Joshua Lederberg got a Nobel Prize in 1958 and a Presidential Medal of Freedom. Esther had to fight for an untenured position at Stanford University.

In the 1920s, Cecilia Payne challenged scientific orthodoxy with the discovery that the Sun is made mostly of hydrogen and helium. Her doctorate supervisor, Henry Norris Russell, advised her not to publish her thesis because it would bring down criticism on her. Four years later, Professor Russell concluded, through his own research, that Cecilia Payne was right. He published a paper with only his own name on it and Payne had to watch Russell get all the credit.

Early in the twentieth century, Nettie Stevens discovered that sperm carries both X and Y chromosomes, while eggs only have Y chromosomes. Ergo, it is the sperm that determines the gender of a fetus. Male scientists ignored her findings. At about the same time, Edmund Wilson made the same discovery and garnered all the kudos.

The Matilda Effect is not limited to science. The achievements of women in the arts, engineering, and other fields of endeavour are often discounted and ascribed to men.

Bonus Factoids

  • We’ve put all that Matilda Effect nonsense behind us. No we haven’t. A 2013 Ohio State University study found significant gender bias against scientific papers published by women. Researchers noted that “Publications from male authors were associated with greater scientific quality …”
  • In 1964, June Almeida working at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto identified the first human coronavirus. Dr. Almeida’s work was recognized and she was persuaded to continue her research at St. Thomas’s Hospital in London. Coincidentally, this was the same hospital that treated British Prime Minister Boris Johnson for Covid-19.

Sources

  • “Friends’ Intelligencer, Volume 40.” 1884.
  • “6 Women Scientists Who Were Snubbed Due to Sexism.” Jane J. Lee, National Geographic, May 19, 2013.
  • “Women Scientists Were Written out of History.” Susan Dominus, Smithsonian Magazine, October 2019.
  • “Trota di Ruggiero: The Lady of Salerno Restored.” Kate Manns, Bluestocking.org.uk, March 1, 2018.
  • “What Are Pulsars?” CallaCofield, Space.com, April 22, 2016.
  • “Jocelyn Bell Burnell.” Biography.com, March 13, 2020.
  • “This Phenomenal Young Woman Found a Cure for Leprosy, but the Man She Worked With Got the Credit.” Medium, August 8, 2017.
  • “The Matilda Effect in Science Communication: An Experiment on Gender Bias in Publication Quality Perceptions and Collaboration Interest.” Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick et al., Science Communication, February 6, 2013.

© 2020 Rupert Taylor

Comments

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 18, 2020:

Rupert, I wish the same too. But in Nigeria, civil servants were treated equally. Recently, a state governor resort to paying female footballer the same pay as they male counterpart. He was applaud for this was not done for years. The crisis between "Real" Donald Trump and Pelosis is unfortunate. She was governor. When she become speaker, I was happy the women are rising. How both came to a cross-road is not here. I am expecting more historical stories from your stable. Thank you. Blessings.

Anya Ali from Rabwah, Pakistan on April 17, 2020:

Interesting post - thank you! @Kyler: good points!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 17, 2020:

Miebakagh, I wish it was true that women had achieved full equality, but they haven't. Even in the most "enlightened' economies women are largely paid less than men for the same work, are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence, and suffer sexual harassment in the workplace. As long as there are people in high office, such as Donald Trump, who denigrate women the situation will be slow to change.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on April 17, 2020:

Rupert,what a good work you have donae. I take it back then that women are regard as the weakest sex. So, work by a woman befiting a man's state would be taken away. It is all rooted in tradition and custom in every nations of the world. But nowadays, all these have change. Thanks to equality of gender, and women can now with an independent mind make a much greater contribution and be recognized as such.

Kyler J Falk from Corona, CA on April 16, 2020:

Those results are unsurprising, an interesting world we live in!

Rupert Taylor (author) from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada on April 16, 2020:

Thanks for your comment Kyler. My understanding is that many of these cases were unearthed by people such as Margaret Rossiter who dug through source documents.

Remember, many of these cases occurred in a time when women were not legally persons nor did they have the right to vote. They were, in fact, the property of their husbands or fathers with no autonomy of action.

And, here's a BBC report from March 2020:

"A new UN report has found at least 90% of men and women hold some sort of bias against females.

"The "Gender Social Norms" index analysed biases in areas such as politics and education in 75 countries.

"Globally, close to 50% of men said they had more right to a job than women. Almost a third of respondents thought it was acceptable for men to hit their partners."

Kyler J Falk from Corona, CA on April 16, 2020:

I always find it interesting when these discussions occur, and it always brings up a strange question for me. If these women were never given credit, and essentially have been written out of history, how is it that we discover the history and the credibility of it? I never wish to invalidate anyone, male or female, nor deny them their credit where it is due but these sorts of arguments always baffled me.

You would think that if we were so focused on maintaining the patriarchal systems of oppression, or whatever we wish to call it, then we wouldn't give women a chance in the first place. We wouldn't work so hard to find evidence for this purposefully hidden or erased history, point out injustices, and move into a brighter future where women get the recognition and credit they deserve.

Then again, when I dig deeper into many of these stories they are full of anecdotal sensationalism to garner certain responses from all sides of this field of analysis and, scientifically, much of it can be rightfully credited and discredited. So hard to keep up with the truth when people seek to hide it behind sensationalism, and even worse, blatant oppression and performative cruelty. I yearn for the day when we can all immerse in the truth, without it being peppered with disdain and cruelty.

Keep up your wonderful writing! These types of contributions mean so much to so many people!

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