Women in Science & Technology I: Making History

Women in STEM

Women have made many important and fascinating contributions to science and technology. When asked to name a woman scientist, however, too often the only woman people can think of is Marie Curie. She is of course a very important part of women’s history in science, but she’s only one of many women influencing science and engineering!

To celebrate Women’s History Month and help kick off the STS blog, this is the first of three posts about women in science & technology who are not Marie Curie. For this series, members of our STS faculty have chosen women in science and technology – both historical and contemporary – who they think are worth our attention. In this post, we share three women in science and technology who helped make history.

Ada Lovelace – selected by Erica Haugtvedt

Ada Lovelace wrote arguably the first computer program for Charles Babbage’s hypothetical mechanical computer, the “analytical engine.” She was the only legitimate daughter of George Gordon, Lord Byron, the famous Romantic poet, peer, and politician. Lovelace’s parents separated when she was an infant; the estrangement was bitter. Lovelace’s mother, herself considered a youthful prodigy in mathematics, committed herself to educating Lovelace in mathematics and science as an antidote against Byron’s poetic influence. Lovelace, however, remained attached to the legacy of her father and would not only name her two sons Byron and Gordon, but would request that she be buried next to her father upon her death. Lovelace rejected her mother’s opposition between mathematics and poetry. In her thirties, Lovelace wrote to her mother that if she couldn’t have poetry, could not she at least have a “poetical science.” That poetical science would be computer science. Lovelace’s experience of mathematics was laden with metaphor and intuition. She valued metaphysics equally to mathematics, seeing both as ways of exploring the “the unseen worlds around us.” Lovelace’s insight into the potentialities of mathematics beyond strict utility allowed her to translate Babbage’s invention into a vision of programming that anticipated what computing would become for the world. Lovelace died of uterine cancer at 36 years old.

Lady Jane Franklin – selected by John Dreyer

Born in 1791 to a British businessman, Lady Jane married her husband Sir John Franklin in 1828. With her husband as Governor in Tasmania she sponsored lectures on botany, science, and ethnography, often replacing the grand balls in the colony. She also was the driving force behind Tasmania’s first State College in 1840. Upon his return from Tasmania, Sir John was appointed to lead the final expedition to find the Northwest passage in the high Canadian Arctic in 1845. When the expedition failed to return, Lady Jane proved to be the force behind no less than seven expeditions to find her husband. Through sponsorship, influence and reward, she also backed numerous other searches, many by the Royal Navy. Through these backings, Lady Jane proved to be the force behind the geographical exploration of the Arctic regions. For this she was awarded the Founder’s Gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1859. It was said about her “What the nation would not do, a woman did.”

Julia R. Pearce – selected by Bryce Tellmann

Julia R. Pearce was the first woman appointed to a United States Department of Agriculture Soil Survey team, in 1901. She reportedly created this opportunity for herself shortly after graduating from UC Berkeley by contacting the Secretary of Agriculture and telling him that she was willing to help fill the department’s shortage of skilled technicians. However, because her supervisor was uncomfortable with the idea of a woman doing fieldwork, she mainly worked as a map copyist. Shortly thereafter she transferred to Washington where she did laboratory work. Prior to this time, and for decades thereafter, women’s contributions to soil science in the United States often occurred in vital but unrecognized settings, assisting their husbands or maintaining maps and records.

Rachel Carson – selected by Christy Tidwell

“What is silencing the voices of spring in countless towns in America?” This question from the opening “Fable for Tomorrow” in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) drew attention to DDT, other pesticides, and the poisoning of the US landscape. Carson’s Silent Spring is widely acknowledged as one inspiration for the 20th century environmental movement, contributing to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (1970) and the passage of the Clean Air Act (1970) and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (1972). When the book was published, however, she was met with harsh criticism, despite her years of experience as a biologist and her academic training (a master’s in zoology and much work toward a PhD). Reviewers and readers reacted with obviously gendered dismissals, calling her “hysterically emphatic” and “emotional and one-sided,” for instance. One letter to The New Yorker (which published the original articles that became the book) wrote, “As for insects, isn’t it just like a woman to be scared to death of a few little bugs!” The dismissal of her as a scientist, naturalist, and writer continued until her early death from cancer in 1964.

Silent Spring is the most memorable part of Carson’s career, but her other writing is worth remembering, too: Under the Sea-Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951), and The Edge of the Sea (1955). She loved the natural world and shared her love for it in her books and public appearances throughout her life. Her final book, The Sense of Wonder (published posthumously in 1965), emphasizes this. Based on a brief article published in Woman’s Home Companion, the book argues for the importance of sharing this kind of love with children.