Display on women scientists

Celebrating Scottish women of science

The enduring legacy of some remarkable Scottish women of science — most of whom remain largely unknown today — is being celebrated at the National Library of Scotland.

They include:

  • A goddaughter of Queen Victoria who served an apprenticeship in a Dundee shipyard
  • A botanist who produced a celebrated book of plant illustrations to support her family after her husband was imprisoned
  • A biologist who shared her work with the Emperor of Japan
  • A former house maid who made important astronomical discoveries.

They all overcame significant obstacles to pursue their scientific interests at a time when universities had only started opening their doors to women and learned societies continued to exclude them. The fact that their work is still cited today in scientific journals demonstrates the relevance of their discoveries to the modern world.

The Treasures display which opens today (March 1) at the National Library of Scotland celebrates the trailblazing achievements of 11 women of science born in the 18th to the 20th centuries. It runs during Women's History Month and is part of the programme of the Edinburgh Science Festival.

Catherine Booth, Science Curator at NLS, who has put the display together, said: 'Most of these women are virtually unknown today, but their work is still influencing a new generation of scientists. They are representative of a much bigger group of female Scottish scientists whose achievements we are proud to celebrate.'

Hard choices had to be made in selecting the 11 women to be profiled in the display from the many who could have been chosen. It was decided to exclude living scientists and those with a medical background.

The 11 are:

  • Elizabeth Blackwell (1700-1758) — amateur botanist and artist:
    Born in Aberdeen, Elizabeth moved to London with her husband who was jailed as a debtor after his printing business failed. To support her family and free her husband, she sketched plant specimens at the Chelsea Physic Garden. She published the illustrations and they proved a huge success. Today the botanical accuracy of her depictions is still admired. The display features some of her work
  • Mary Somerville (1780-1872) — mathematician and astronomer:
    Mary was born in Jedburgh in 1780 and was described on her death in 1872 as the 'Queen of Nineteenth Century Science'. She wrote three major scientific works and was the first woman to be elected to the Royal Astronomical Society. Somerville College in Oxford is named after her
  • Elizabeth Fulhame (precise dates unknown) — chemist:
    Little is known about Elizabeth who published a book in 1794 called 'An essay on combustion'. It was clearly the work of a skilled chemist, but was criticised by many scientists (all of them men) who thought she was exceeding her bounds as a woman. Her book was translated into German and was republished in Philadelphia where she was elected as an honorary member of the Philadelphia Chemical Society
  • Williamina Fleming (1857-1911) — astronomer:
    Williamina and her husband emigrated from Dundee to the USA in 1878 but, shortly afterwards, she was left as a single parent. After a time working as a maid, she found work at the Harvard College Observatory identifying the presence of stars captured on photographic plates. She subsequently discovered hundreds of stars and the Horsehead Nebula — a dark cluster of gas and interstellar dust in the constellation of Orion
  • Maria Gordon (1864-1939) — geologist:
    Maria was born in Monymusk, Aberdeenshire and became the first woman to gain a PhD from the University of Munich. She published more than 30 papers on the geology of the South Tyrol region of Italy and was one of the first geologists to show that limestone peaks were formed by movements in the Earth’s crust.
  • Muriel Robertson (1883-1973) — zoologist:
    Muriel was born in Glasgow and studied at Glasgow University. She is known for her work on parasites that causes illnesses such as sleeping sickness. She also played an important role during both world wars in identifying types of the bacteria Clostridium which can infect war wounds. She was one of the first women to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.
  • Victoria Drummond (1894-1978) — marine engineer:
    Victoria was born at Megginch Castle, Perthshire and was a goddaughter of Queen Victoria. Her passion for engineering did not seem to flow from her aristocratic background but so intent was she in an engineering career, that she served an apprenticeship in Caledon Ship Works, Dundee. She served on a number of ships, but faced opposition from the male establishment in trying to gain a chief engineer's certificate. She eventually triumphed' and one of the many highlights of her career was being awarded the MBE and Lloyd's war medal for bravery for single-handedly keeping the engines of the SS Bonita running while under German bombardment.
  • Charlotte ('Lotte') Auerbach (1899-1944) — geneticist:
    Lotte spent much of her working life in Edinburgh after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933. She became a pioneer in the study of genetic mutations and was one of the first scientists to understand the dangers of nuclear radiation. She was one of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
  • Isabella Gordon (1901-1988) — marine biologist:
    Isabella became known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Carcinology' (science of crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs) due to her impressive research. She was born in Keith to impoverished parents and earned a bursary to continue her education. She spent most of her working life at the British Museum but provided expertise and advice both at home and abroad, including to Emperor Hirohito of Japan.
  • Marion C Gray (1902-1979) — mathematician:
    Marion was born in Ayr and spent most of her working life in the United States with large companies, including the phone company AT&T and Bell Laboratories. She made an important discovery in graph theory which is still cited by scientists today.
  • Marion A S Ross (1903-1994) — physicist:
    Marion was born in Edinburgh and graduated from Edinburgh University. She carried out pioneering work into the structure of crystals in the 1930s with Arnold Beevers which is still exciting interest today. She was the first director of Edinburgh University's Fluid Dynamics Unit and a physics prize commemorates her name.

'Scottish women of science: Celebrating trailblazers from our past' runs until April 30 at NLS on George 1V Bridge, Edinburgh. Entry is free.

28 February 2013

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