Where Science Happens: Dr. Kathleen Shepherd on Science & Sociability in Egyptology

Guest Speakers

By Olivia Burgess

When you think about the development of science, you might envision a laboratory, but you probably don’t think of a bar, a hotel lobby, or a boat. However, our recent guest speaker, Dr. Kathleen Sheppard, argues that the informal spaces where scientists meet to discuss their work, network, and simply relax are just as important if not more important than formal sites like labs, museums, and universities. 

Dr. Sheppard is an Egyptologist and historian of science who specializes in late 19th-century and early 20th-century British and American Egyptology. During her visit from Nov 15th-16th, 2021, she met with the students in STS 201: Introduction to Science, Society, & Society, gave a Brown Bag presentation, and topped off her visit with a STEAM Café talk.  

Dr. Sheppard’s STEAM Café talk.

In STS 201, Dr. Sheppard introduced students to the importance of the Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo. Shepheard’s was a hub for Americans and Europeans traveling to Egypt to dig, excavate, and, if all went well, discover a rich collection of artifacts to deliver to museums and patrons. In between digs, these mainly white, wealthy Europeans and Americans would lounge, eat, talk, and network at the hotel. Egyptians were not allowed in this space, a fact Dr. Sheppard highlighted with a picture of the Shepheard’s hotel terrace. It physically and symbolically elevated hotel goers from the Egyptian crowds in the street, which captures the status-driven division between Europeans and Egyptians that defined the times. Her talk was a fascinating addition to course discussions on ethics in design and infrastructure, and conversations about how buildings, bridges, and even terraces can purposefully exclude certain groups of people.

Shepheard’s Hotel in the 1920s. This picture shows the elevated terrace that physically separated the people in the street–the Egyptians–from the privileged space inside the hotel.

Both her Brown Bag talk and STEAM Café presentation told fascinating stories about the unique people who traveled to Egypt to dig for artifacts, mummies, temple treasures, and more, but they all supported her larger thesis: sociability and relationships are incredibly important – though often overlooked – in the development of science. Places like sailboats and hotels served as informal scientific institutions where both connections and knowledge were created.

This was perhaps best illustrated by the love story of Maggie Benson and Janet Gourlay (known as Nettie), the main figures of her STEAM Café talk and two early contributors to the field of Egyptology. Maggie and Nettie met in Egypt at the Luxor Hotel, another luxurious and exclusive site frequented by European scientists and travelers. Because of the connections made at the hotel, Maggie and Nettie met, fell in love, and established a lifelong romantic relationship that would also benefit each professionally. 

In late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century Egypt, almost all of the work of excavating artifacts was managed and overseen by men. It was a “masculine” field, as Dr. Sheppard put it. However, Maggie applied to start her own dig at the site of the Mut Temple in Luxor, and she was eventually granted permission, thanks in part to her ability to pay for her own project. Through Maggie, Nettie was able to join the dig and apply her own training, something she might not have otherwise had the opportunity to do. In turn, Maggie gained a partner who treated her as an equal. Maggie and Nettie eventually collected an impressive list of artifacts and made a lasting mark in the field of Egyptology. 

Nettie Gourlay and Maggie Benson in 1906. From Life and Letters of Maggie Benson (p. 376).

Unfortunately, as Dr. Sheppard explained, same sex couples are often erased from scientific history and described in biographies as “unmarried” – in other words, in their relation to men – rather than as couples in long-term, loving partnerships in their own right. “They were a true scientific couple,” Dr. Sheppard stressed, “and their productivity shows that.” The tendency of scientific biographies to describe individuals in same sex partnerships as “unmarried” and reduce the nature of the relationship to “fast friends” does a disservice to partnerships that were critical to the advancement of science. 

Ultimately, Dr. Sheppard’s work and the riveting stories she told reveal how important socializing, networking, and interpersonal relationships are to the creation of knowledge. While we often assume this work is completed in labs, museums, and universities, it is just as tied to the social connections we make outside of those spaces as we chat, eat, drink, love, and live our lives.

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