December 6, 2011 | 6
One of the pleasures of editing a magazine like Scientific American, with its 166-year history as the country’s longest continuously published magazine, is getting a “you are there” view of science as it was whenever I take a spin through our digital archives. The other day, while reading some 100-year-old prose, I was reminded of a famous incident. I was struck by how different the world was a century ago for women in science—and proud of Scientific American’s editorial judgment at the time. Let me explain.
Marie Curie, for those who are unfamiliar, was a pioneering physicist known as the “Mother of Modern Physics.” In her work, she established the nature of radiation and beta rays, and discovered and isolated polonium and radium. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize—for Physics in 1902—and then the first person to win two Nobels in different disciplines, when she won a Nobel for Chemistry in 1911.
Early in 1911, however, the French Academy of Sciences turned down Curie’s application. As French physicist Emile Hilaire Amagat said at the time: “Women cannot be part of the Institute of France.” Marie Curie would not allow her name to be resubmitted for nomination and wouldn’t let the Academy publish any of her work for a decade. (More in this Wired article.)
As the first woman editor in chief of Scientific American, I’m keenly aware of the sense of standing on the shoulders of giants—some of them clearly frequented our editorial offices in 1911. I thought you’d enjoy in its entirety an editorial that ran in the January 21, 1911 issue:
Sex and Scientific Recognition
Had the incident occurred a quarter of a century ago we could have understood better the discussion which has been provoked in that august body, the Academy of Sciences, Paris, by the candidature of Madame Curie for membership. Respect for custom and tradition is an admirable attitude if it be judiciously tempered by due considerations of time, place and personality; but we cannot help feeling that in this advanced age, in such a center of enlightenment as Paris, and where a scientist of such brilliant performance as Madame Curie is concerned, this discussion as to whether she is eligible for admission to the Academy of Sciences, is altogether deplorable.
When science comes to the matter of bestowing its rewards it should be blind to the mere accident of sex; and one does not have to be an enthusiast on the subject of the extension of the rights and privileges of her sex, to feel that here is a woman who, by her brilliant achievement, has won the right to take her place with her compeers in the Academy, or any similar institution devoted to the furthering of science. The scientific world will undoubtedly agree with Gaston Darboux, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences, in urging the right of Madame Curie to succeed to the position of which her late husband was next to the last occupant.
As far as the learned societies of other countries are concerned, the election of a woman to the Academy would certainly not be without precedent. Several foreign bodies, indeed, including the Philosophic Society of Philadelphia, have already welcomed her into their membership. Darboux instances the case of the Countess Ersilia Lovatelli, who, as dean of the Archreological section of the Royal Academy of Italy, took a prominent part at a recent meeting of the Academy of Rome, and also that of Elise Wendel, who was a prominent figure at Berlin in 1900 during the centennial celebration of the German Academy of Sciences. To these cases we might add those of Hertha Ayrton, the only woman member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers of Great Britain, who was considered eligible for election to that distinguished body, because of her discovery of the laws governing certain phenomena of the electric arc, and that of Lady Margaret Lindsay Huggins, who, because of her valuable work in astronomy and her contributions to the journals devoted to that branch of science, was elected an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Elsewhere in this issue reference is made to the fact that a statistical study of American men of science has led Prof. Cattell to draw attention to the fact that women are contributing but a very small share to productive scientific work. If this be so, it is obvious that to contest the right to recognition of such women is further to discourage the entrance of women into a sphere of work in which their patience, intelligence, and strong intuitive perception render them peculiarly well fitted to labor.
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