The iconic photograph of the 1927 Solvay conference featured 29 stellar physicists and chemists, including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. When Professor Teresa Giraldez came across a historical photograph of nine leading women scientists, she was intrigued. Dated February 14th, 1980, this photograph marks a reception hosted by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (represented here by his Assistant Sarah Weddington). Here, Teresa tells us about the remarkable journey of these women who received high recognition at the White House.
The scientists portrayed in this picture were all born in the first quarter of the 20th century and many of them developed their career throughout extremely hard times: during or just after the Second World War (WWII). Interestingly (or should I say ‘sadly’?), tough times for society usually turn out into professional or social opportunities for women; this seems to be the case for some of the women in the picture. In the US, during WWII, the proportion of working women increased by about 15%. The reason for this increase was that many jobs, previously occupied solely by men, were now deserted–they had left to the war front. This situation was soon extended to the field of Science and Technology. For example, the United States Civil Commission, in its search for qualified personnel, “rebranded” many disciplines such as engineering (until then, mainly dominated by men). Thus, the Commission made it clear in its 1941 report that ”Feminine aptitudes may be well adapted to engineering design, testing, and inspection, research, preparation of plans and maps, and computation” (Calling women for federal war work, United States Civil Service Commission, 1941). However, most historians agree that this apparently auspicious achievement must be taken with a grain of salt: these women scientists were mostly hired in positions “according to their femininity”, often in lower level jobs and always as subordinates in the research teams performing research projects during the War. In most cases, it was expected that, after the War was over, they would stop working to go back to their ‘home duties’ (1, 2). While many women were hired during those years, only a few were recognized.
Recent studies have shown that the role of women was pivotal in many scientific milestones during the War, but completely ignored by society until now. An example of such disregard is greatly documented in the film Top Secret Rosies: the female computers of world war II (directed by Professor L. Erikson, Temple University, Philadelphia (3)), which tells the story of five women involved in the development of the Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer (ENIAC). In the 1940s, a group of women mathematicians were recruited and trained at the University of Pennsylvania to systematically perform highly accurate ballistic calculations to be promptly sent to the European war front. In parallel, they contributed to the development of the first computer (ENIAC) that was able to perform very fast basic calculations, with unprecedented results at that time. None of these women was invited to the official dinner that was celebrated to present the ENIAC; to most observers, they were just “models” posing next to the original invention.
Nevertheless, all these women achieved an incredible milestone for the society: they broke the mould. The idea that women should stay home as “the only thing they could really do” was no longer sustainable. These women showed that their technical and intellectual abilities was not lower than men’s; they could indeed combine work and family to aspire to higher achievements in their professional careers. Role models now existed, and they could be followed by younger women who aspired to be medical doctors or University Professors. A new pathway was opened.
Let’s go back now to our photograph. The fact that makes it historical is that in 1980, those nine women were already leaders in their scientific research fields, Presidents of Scientific Societies or influential science policy makers at the federal government.
In the picture, the first one on the left is Dr. Mary Lowe Good (b. 1931), an inorganic chemist who in 1972 had been the first woman to be elected to the board of the American Chemical Society. In 1980, Dr. Good was head of the Engineered Materials Research division at Signal Research Center, Inc., with a staff of 400 scientists and technicians and annual sales of approximately $3 billion. Earlier that year, she was appointed to the National Science Board of the National Science Foundation by President Carter to participate in the elaboration of new plans for Scientific Research with public funding. She would later hold government positions under the administrations of Reagan, Bush and Clinton, combining stellar industrial and academic careers and receiving awards and recognition. In 1986, she was referred to as one of “Chicago’s 10 most powerful women” by the Chicago Tribune (5).
Next to her, Dr. Chieng-Shiung Wu (1912-1997), an experimental physicist who had been hired at Columbia University during WWII to work on the Manhattan Project. She developed a new method to extract Uranium, a chemical element that was used in the atomic bomb. After the war, she continued at Columbia as a Research Assistant, a position for which she was likely overqualified. Her experimental work had opened the door to the findings of her male colleagues Drs. Lee and Yang, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957; Dr. Wu was not included as one of the awardees. She was appointed Full Professor in Columbia in 1958. Among her long list of achievements and Awards, she was the first woman to become President of the American Society for Physics, one of the first to become a member of the National Academy of Science, and first to receive the National Medal of Science of the United States (1975). She would retire in 1981 to become a Professor Emerita.
To her left stands Dr. E. Janet Berry, who in 1980 was the first woman President of the American Institute of Chemists. Dr. Berry was doubly uncommon: after obtaining a PhD in Science in Purdue University (1946), she went on to get a Juris Doctor degree at NYU (1952), becoming in 1953 a member of the New York bar. After working some years in different patent departments, she became a private practice patent attorney in New York City (1965). Undoubtedly, her career path was exceptional for a woman at that time.
The fourth in the picture is Dr. Ariel Hollingshead (b. 1929), a pharmacologist who is considered by many as the “mother of immunotherapy”. She discovered and developed tumor-associated antigens (TAA), and was the first to do clinical tests of TAA vaccines in lung cancer patients. Collaborating with oncologists from all over the world, she worked on developing vaccines for many types of cancer. In 1976, she had been named Medical Woman of the year by the Joint Board of American Medical Colleges, describing her as “one of the few women in our country who (…) will receive lasting distinction by applying the principles of basic research to the diseases of humanity” (6). In 1980, when this picture was taken, she received the Star of Europe Medal, chosen by the Ministers of Health for Germany, England and Italy. These were only two of the many achievements of her outstanding career.
Dr. Mildred Dresselhauss (b. 1930), the next in the picture, was at that time Professor of Physics and Director of the Center for Material Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She would soon become President of the American Society of Physics (1983). Today she is considered pioneer in the birth of Nanotechnology and Nanoengineering. She is member of the National Academy of Sciences and has received the National Medal of Science (1990) and the International L’Oreal-UNESCO Award (1997), which adds up to a long list of international Awards and recognitions.
Next to her stands Dr. Elizabeth Crosby (1888-1983), National Medal of Science (1979) for her contributions to the field of Neuroanatomy. As many others in the picture, she had a long list of firsts: first woman to obtain full professorship at the University of Michigan Medical School (1936) and to receive the University’s Faculty Achievement Award (1956). In 1980 she was Professor Emeritus of Anatomy. In 1987 she would be instated in the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame (7).
Next in the group is Dr. Margaret Oakley Dayhoff (1925-1983), possibly the founder of the field of bioinformatics. By 1980, when this photo was taken, Dr. Dayhoff had developed an on-line protein database system that could be accessed by telephone line, the first sequence database available for interrogation by remote computers. At that time she was President of the Biophysical Society (1980-1981). She was the second woman President after Jane K. Setlow (1977-78). Dr. Dayhoff was a true pioneer of bioinformatics – a field that by then had not been yet recognized as a distinct area of research. It is thanks to her, among many other things, that we use a single-letter code for the amino acids.
To Dr Dayhoff’s left stands Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone (1904-1998), a physician best known for defying convention by advocating for sexual education, in a period when public discussion of such topic was considered extremely controversial. She had been medical director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1953 to 1964. She then co-founded the Sex Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). Under her direction, this institution was pivotal for education about human sexuality in the schools as well as in the community. Her revolutionary contributions lead the way to many essential discussions in our society, which are still applicable today.
The ninth woman closing the group is Dr. Charlotte Friend (1921-1987). She described for the first time the murine leukemia virus (named the ‘Friend’ virus after her). She was one of many women who enlisted in the Army during the war, continuing her scientific career afterwards. Among her many achievements, she was Professor and Director of the Center for Cellular Experimental Biology of Mount Sinai Hospital in New York (1966), President of the American Society for Cancer Research (1975), elected member of the National Academy of Sciences (1976), and President of the New York Academy of Sciences (1978). One year after this picture was taken she would unfortunately be diagnosed with lymphoma. However, this fact did not disconnect her from science and the laboratory, which had been the most important things in her life.
Apart from their outstanding scientific achievements, all these women were known for their enormous interest and effort to promote the role of women in science. Dr. Good and Dr. Dresselhaus created specific Programs aimed to promote the scientific career of women in the male dominated fields of Chemistry and Physics. Dr Hollingshead’s efforts to support women in science was widely appreciated by her peers. It was well known that when Dr. Dayhoff saw a female student on the hallway, she would enquire with interest about her situation and line of work. She would encourage female students to persevere, and not give up despite the hardships of academia and scientific research. Dr. Friend was known for her strong arguments in Scientific Committees, where she would fight to assure a fair number of female speakers at symposia. Their efforts are kept alive in the form of two Awards that are given annually in their honour. The Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award from the Dayhoff Foundation, supported by the Biophysical Society, is awarded to the “most promising young woman in Biophysics”. Likewise, the AACR-Women in Cancer Research Charlotte Friend Memorial Lectureship recognizes the role of men or women who not only have contributed significantly to the advance of cancer research, but who have significantly helped along their way to integrate women in science.
This photograph is a reminder of the effort and hardship that many women endured during difficult times, of how they prevailed to change the view of their world and to open paths for new generations of women scientists. This snapshot immortalizes nine achievers that undoubtedly took their society one step further from gender-biased stereotypes and inequality. We must embrace their legacy and continue striving for gender equality, in and out of Science.
About the Author
Dr Teresa Giraldez is a Lecturer and Group Leader at the University of La Laguna, Tenerife, Spain and Deputy Director of the Institute of Biomedical Technologies (ITB). Her research is on ion channels biophysics and physiology, control of neuronal excitability, and calcium signaling in subcellular domains, using state-of-the-art imaging techniques and electrophysiology. She is the recipient of the 2009 Margaret Oakley Dayhoff Award from the Biophysical Society and the European Research Council Consolidator Award. She has been a member of the Biophysical Society Committee for Professional Opportunities for Women (CPOW) and was recently elected to the Biophysical Society Council.
1. Margaret W. Rossiter (1998) Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
2. Jordynn Jack (2009) Science on the home front: American Women Scientists in World War II. University of Illinois Press.
3. Top Secret Rosies: The female computers of World War II. LeAnn Erikson. Documental. http://www.topsecretrosies.com/Top_Secret_Rosies/Home.html
4. Rediscovering WWWII’II female ‘computers’, J. Gumbrecht, CNN Feb. 2011: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/TECH/innovation/02/08/women.rosies.math/index.html?hpt=C2
5. “Chicago`s 10 Most Powerful Women”. Chicago Tribune. November 18, 1987. Retrieved 7 April 2015.
6. Ariel Hollingshead Biographical Statement in http://www.precision-biologics.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/ACH-bio.pdf
7. “Inductees” from Alabama Women’s Hall Of Fame. http://www.awhf.org/inductee.html