What have female scientists ever done for us?

You may have read in the newspapers yesterday about Nobel prize winning scientist, Tim Hunt.  Tim won the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine in 2001 for his work on cell division.  Until this morning he was honorary professor at University College, London, primarily, one suspects for the kudos that having a Nobel prize winning professor brings to an already prestigious university.

Unfortunately that has now tarnished somewhat.

It was reported yesterday that in a speech Professor Hunt made to a World Conference of Science Journalists in Seoul, back in June, he commented that women and men should have separate labs in which to work.

He gave three reasons for this:

Firstly, the male scientists will fall in love with the female scientists and this will put them off their work.

Secondly the female scientists will fall in love with the male scientists and this will put them off their work.

Thirdly, women are rather emotional and cry a lot, particularly when you criticise them, and this will stop them from working effectively.

He admitted that he had a reputation for being a bit of a chauvinist.


This morning it was reported that Professor Hunt has resigned from his post.  He said that he stands by his comments, but he is just very sorry that he made them in public, to a room full of journalists.  He also said that the comments were meant to be light hearted and ironic but just got misinterpreted.

I do not quite see how this squares with the whole ‘I meant it but I’m just sorry I was caught out’ line.

Nor do I see the humour or the irony.

I suspect certain segments of the population would tell me this is because I am a feminist, and as we know, feminists do not have a sense of humour. I believe it’s something to do with having a vagina if I understand it correctly. I don’t know. I’m not a scientist.  I wanted to be, but I found myself falling in love with pictures of Stephen Hawking and crying all the time, so, you know, that career was already out of the window for me.

I was talking about this with a male friend yesterday. To illustrate the stupidity of Hunt’s remarks I said:

‘Yeah, that Marie Curie chick. Always whinging. Always dragging her love life into her research, slowing things down and being rubbish. Radiation was just an afterthought really.’

He said: ‘Well, you’re trying to discredit him by mentioning just one famous female scientist. It’s hardly refuting his argument is it?’

I was stunned by this.

Firstly I was stunned by the fact that he had said this at all. I had flippantly added this to the end of my anecdote thinking it would amuse him, rather than thinking that he would use it to challenge me. It never occurred to me that he might think, even slightly, that one would have to offer concrete proof of a) great female scientists or b) come up with arguments to refute what Hunt had said.

Surely all that needed to be said was: ‘The man’s a twat. End. Of.’

Surely he just needed to think of our friend Andrea? Andrea who when failing sight buggered up her chances of a degree first time round, got better, got a job, paid her way through an OU undergrad and masters degree and then went on to get a doctorate in chemical engineering.  While she was doing this she was also holding down another job to pay for all this, renovating a house and helping her parents run a dairy farm.  She can also run up architectural plans, drive a combine harvester and has somehow fitted in time to learn to ski, go to the Galapagos islands and learn the rudiments of ice skating because she’s always fancied giving it a try.  Oh, and she has a debilitating genetic condition which leaves her in pain 24/7 and she still can’t see much, but she just shrugs it off.

When she’s not falling in love with scientists and weeping into test tubes. Apparently.

But no. Apparently it is not enough to think about what Marie Curie or indeed Andrea has done for us.  We also have to think about:

Rosalind Franklin -without whose research, Crick and Watson would arguably have not discovered the double helix, and yet who was not awarded the Nobel prize despite it now being acknowledged that her work was pivotal to the discovery.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell who discovered pulsars in 1967 while she was still a student at university, Pulsars are the remnants of stars that go supernova. The discovery helped change the future of astronomy and was considered so important the research was awarded a Nobel prize. Not for Bell Burnell though, for her supervisor. A man.

Esther Lederberg, who along with her husband did pioneering work in the field of understanding bacteria. Her work on generating bacterial cultures was so important it is called the Lederberg technique and is still used today. Her husband got all the credit for the work.

Chien-Shiung Wu – A woman who helped overturn the accepted laws of physics in relation to quantum theory and who played a major role in developing the atom bomb. Her work in quantum physics was overlooked in favour of her two male colleagues who were given the Nobel prize. Is this beginning to sound familiar?

Lisa Meitner – A woman whose work on explaining nuclear fission was stolen by a male colleague who removed her name from the research in favour of his own. He was awarded a Nobel prize for his work on splitting the atom.

Nettie Stevens – A woman whose work on determining sex through understanding chromosomes was overlooked in favour of that of a male researcher who discovered the same things only much later than she did.

These are some of the women who have been overlooked (more information about them here).  What about some of those who actually managed to stick their head above the parapet:

Jane Goodall and her pioneering work as a primatologist and ethologist and her expertise on chimpanzees.

Rachel Carson, the leading environmentalist and scientist who exposed the massive damage chemicals were doing to the wildlife and biodiversity of the USA in the Fifties in her groundbreaking book Silent Spring.

Barbara McClintock who received the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her work on genetic transportation?

The list goes on…

But you know, what have women ever given to science except broken hearts, bosoms and the need to pay out for vast quantities of Kleenex Balsam?

7 responses to “What have female scientists ever done for us?

  1. I read about Hunt’s comments yesterday and immediately thought, “The man’s a twat. End. Of.”

    But then, I would, wouldn’t I? I do have a vagina, after all.

    Excellent post, Katy!

  2. Plus he said GIRLS in the labs. Not even “women”. GIRLS. So apparently we aren’t even adults in his world… we’re juveniles who fall in love with him all the time.

  3. I think he could be on to something myself. Not for his pathetic reasons obviously but, judging by many of your examples Katy, there is a definite case for all-female labs/research institutions if only to ensure all credits due go to the women who did the work and not to the dicks who stole it.

  4. Pingback: #DistractinglySexy – the trouble with science | HARN Weblog

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