Transcript of Scottish women scientists video

Transcript of Science Collections Curator Catherine Booth's filmed talk about Scottish women scientists at the National Library of Scotland.

Transcript of Science Collections Curator Catherine Booth's filmed talk about Scottish women scientists at the National Library of Scotland.

I'm [Catherine Booth] the curator of the science collections in the National Library of Scotland. I've been researching Scottish women of science. I didn't know much about the subject before I started but I've been amazed and fascinated by what I've found out.

One of the women that I started with was someone called Williamina Fleming. She was born in Dundee in 1857 and died in the USA in 1911. She left school when she was 14 and became a pupil-teacher. She then got married and she and her husband emigrated to the USA in 1878. Sadly her husband left her so she was left pregnant and on her own. She had to get some kind of work so she found work in the Harvard College Observatory as a maid.

The director of the observatory realised she was capable of a lot more work than that, better work than that and he employed her as one of his assistants. Her job became classifying and cataloguing stars. The photographs taken were the spectra from stars, from near and distant stars. And it was someone's job then to compare the spectra from one day to the next I suppose and she was given that task.

In that way she discovered more than 200 variable stars, 10 novae, 160 stars of other types and 59 nebuli including the Horsehead nebula which is quite well known.

This article in the journal 'Astronomy and astrophysics' in 1893 written by Williamina Fleming herself is called 'A field for women's work in astronomy'. It was a paper she gave in Chicago at a congress in astronomy and astrophysics in 1893. And she speaks about women's place in astronomy. She does talk about what she's doing and how she did it but the very end paragraph says:

'… while we cannot maintain that in everything woman is man's equal yet in many things her patience, perserverance and method makes her his superior. Therefore let us hope that in astronomy which now affords a large field for woman's work in skill, she may, as has been the case in several other sciences, at least prove herself his equal.'

This was written on 4th August 1893.

This little article is an obituary written by her colleague in the Harvard observatory and it gives some lovely little facts about her personal life. That she loved football — 'there was no more enthusiastic spectator in the stadium for the football games. No more ardent champion of the Harvard 11.'

It also says 'her bright face, her attractive manner and her cheery greeting with its charming Scotch accent will long be remembered by even the most casual visitors to the Harvard College Observatory.' So she was quite a lady.

Another scientist I've been finding out about, a female scientist, was someone called Muriel Robertson. Her dates were 1883 to 1973. She was a Protozoologist. She studied early life forms, single-cell creatures, and was also a Bacteriologist.

She was born in Glasgow, a family of 12 children and she was the seventh. It must have been a relatively prosperous household. The children were all educated at home.

When Muriel was 16, sadly her father died and she realised she'd have to think about what she was going to do. She decided to go to university to do an arts course. Now at that time when you did an arts course, you did science as well. So she started studying mathematics, zoology, botany as well as other things before she started her arts course.

She discovered she was really keen on the zoology and she was awarded a Carnegie research scholarship when she was finished and given a bench in the laboratory to work on the protozoa, the single-celled organisms that she was very interested in.

She also became interested in trypanosomes which are parasites carried by various insects including tsetse flies. And in 1911 she was given an appointment in Uganda to study the trypanosomes on tsetse flies. She was there for three years and it seems she went around on her bicycle in Uganda doing her research.

While she was there she published, or had an article published in the 'Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society' on trypanosomes. There's a long list, over 60 articles and papers that she wrote during her working life. She was one of the first women to be made a Fellow of the Royal Society in London.

Muriel Robertson's legacy continues today. You can look in one of our electronic products called 'Web of science' and find papers that she has written and how often they are still cited today.

I have become completely hooked on the lives and work of so many women. I researched about 11, but there's at least another 30 out there that are worth looking at. You get such wonderful stories of how much they've done, how they coped with adversity, bravery, courage, and standing up for themselves. We have a number that were awarded MBEs, OBEs, Fellows of one of the royal societies, received medals from learned institutes across the world.

We need to celebrate these women. They are quite something and they deserve to be much better known.


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