nobel prie winning women in science

aloisia schmid a-schmi at uiuc.edu
Sat Sep 20 19:04:46 EST 1997


Dear Colleen,

     A journalist whose name I don't remember published a book last year
called "The nobel Prize winning Women in Science".  It seems her father
and brothers were all MDs and they were all sitting around the dinner
table one time and they were arguing that women simply didn't have what it
takes to be competitive scientists.  They didn't have the stomach for it,
they said.  And as evidence to support this argument they cited the fact
that there have been over 350 Nobel Prizes awarded in science and only 14
of them have gone to women.  Clearly, because women were inferior
scientists, they said.

     So this woman researched the question and found that it was true that
women received fewer Nobel prizes than anyone would have predicted, but
when she looked into why that was the case, she found it was because for
the most part, women were not allowed to attend universities until very
recently.  When they WERE admitted, it was purely on sufferance.  They
were given no financial support or real positions in laboratories in which
to do research.  Every detail of their lives was made needlessly difficult
and set them apart from the norm, which was male.  For example, one woman
had to go to a hotel three blocks away in order to use a ladies room.  No
facilities were provided for her in her department.  When they wanted to
attend a seminar, they had to hide in balconies because it was considered
insulting to a dignified male visiting scientist to have lowly women int
he audience---it was considered disrespectful.  

     When they did get degrees, and it was extremely rare that they did----it
was usually because there was a husband or a father already in science,
willing to allow them to work with them.  So they were granted degrees and
were then unable to find jobs.  So they had to continue to work for
husbands and fathers as unpaid assistants. THERE WAS NEVER ANY MONEY TO
PAY THEIR SALARIES!  All kinds of terms were created to describe their
positions:  unpaid, unofficial teaching assistant.  etc..  Students
refused to attend lectures delivered by lowly women.  Papers weren't
reviewed with a woman's authorship attached to it. 

     During the 50's when women were actually starting to get hired by
universities there were anti-nepotism laws designed to keep their
positions secondary.  So when Ros Yallow (or was it Yarrow?) had her job
here at the  university of Illinois, and after she won the Nobel Prize for
developing the radioimmune assay, and after she was chairman of her
department!---she found herself subject to the anti-nepotism law.  Namely,
she had a cousin or a nephew or something who was male and who got an
entry level position in another department, and they were either actually
going to fire her or did (i don't remember her story---i ahven't gotten to
that chapter of the book yet, so I am going on the author's description of
the story from a talk I heard her give.....).  Anyway, I think she wound
up going somewhere else.  

     The points being that there are TONS of stories of women in science
who are absolute heroes for all they were able to accomplish in the face
of steady and constant reinforcement that they couldn't do half of what
they did!  The stunning thing to me is not that only 14 women achieved
this hallmark of scientific glory---the Nobel Prize---but that that MANY
did it!  The book is excellent---let me recommend it.  But the author
gives one heck of a talk too.  When she came here to the U of I, the talk
was in a huge seminar room int he physics department and the audience was
overwhelmingly female and let me tell you, we walked out of there feeling
a little prouder and quite a bit more militant in our feminism than we did
when we walked in!   There were actually quite a few men though too, and
what surprised me most of all, is that quite a few of the men were not the
politically correct kind you would imagine would attend, but were actually
the militant anti-feminist kind you don't think exists anymore!  The
remarks they made added all that much more to the poignancy of the talk
that the author gave.  It made the women in the audience completely aware
of what the attitudes used to be like and also of how far we still have to
go....

     By the way, she includes a chapter on Rosalind Franklin as well, even
though she didn't win the Nobel Prize.  Currently at Cold Spring Harbor
PRess, there is a book on Rosalind Franklin, written by a friend of hers
to set the record straight in response to her depiction in "the Double
Helix".  Both accounts are excellent.  You might want to include these
books on the reading list for your course!

                     Good luck!

                                 Alice



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