Women in Chemistry

Thursday 26 August 2010 View all posts

Two thirds of people living in the UK cannot name a single female scientist either living or historical. For 18-24 year olds this figure rises to 88%. These shocking figures from a recent survey by the Royal Society are also depressing as they reveal that only 50% of the population could name any scientist, male or female. Most who could, named Einstein. The figures are only for Britain but I wonder if they are true for other countries too?

Assuming this is a worldwide phenomenon (as opposed to a uniquely British problem) it raises many important issues. One of the concerns I have about our current IB Chemistry syllabus is that apart from the discovery of penicillin (assuming you do Option D) it contains no historical references and in a sense it is devoid of the culture of Chemistry. How can we expect our students to know of famous scientists if we do not refer to them in our teaching? There will soon be a new generation of Chemistry teachers who, unless they have done their own research, will be seriously lacking in any knowledge of the background of our subject.

The lack of knowledge of famous female chemists is a slightly different problem. Unlike their male counterparts there simply are not very many. When I was drawing up my Chemistry quotations that appear on the side of each page I was struck by difficult it is to find any by women. Off hand, how many famous female chemists can you think of? The Royal Society has produced a list of ten famous British female scientists. Only four of them were involved in Chemistry. Three of these made their name in crystallography: Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971) crystal structures of inorganic and organic molecules, Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994) structure of penicillin and vitamin B12 and Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) structure of DNA. The fourth was Elsie Widdowson (1908-2000) a nutritional chemist. Perhaps the most famous female chemist worldwide is Marie Curie (1867-1934) who won two Nobel Prizes (one for Physics and one for Chemistry) for her pioneering work on radioactivity. The only other famous female chemist that springs readily to my mind without doing any further research is the Canadian Maud Menten (1879-1960) who worked on enzyme kinetics. It is perhaps not surprising that there are very few famous women scientists from more than 100 years ago as many of the universities and scientific professions and societies were closed to women. However for many decades now women have had more or less equal rights to education and to the professions in most parts of the world. When I look back at the numbers of students I have taught IB Chemistry to over the past thirty years I estimate that slightly more than half were female and this ratio is also true for the teacher participants who have attended the many Chemistry IB workshops I have run. Women are certainly studying and teaching Chemistry but somehow they are either not making as much impact as men or their achievements are going unrecognised. There is certainly some truth in this last statement as many people have re-evaluated the work of Rosalind Franklin and feel that she deserved the Nobel Prize in 1962 for elucidating the structure of DNA just as much as Watson, Crick and Wilkins. I think that all teachers of IB Chemistry need to be aware of this problem. There is a lack of role models from the past – somehow it needs to be changed for the future.

Tags: female chemist, Royal Society, workshop


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