Fractured Histories – Finding Scientific Women in the Archive

By Sue Hawkins

Mary, Countess of Ross

Mary, Countess of Ross

Have you heard of Mary Crosfield, Ethel Woods, EML (Eileen) Hendriks, Eileen Guppy. Or Etheldred Bennett, Charlotte Murchison, Mary Buckland, Muriel Robertson; or perhaps Charlotte Auerbach, Marion Ross, Isabella Gordon or Mary, Countess of Rosse are familiar to you? All these women ‘did’ science and made a significant contribution to their field, but it’s a good bet that almost no-one recognises their names, let alone is aware of their achievements.

On 16 July 2013 the Royal Society hosted a workshop entitled ‘Fractured Histories: discovering women scientists in the archive’. The workshop was the first event to be staged as part of the Women in Science Research Network (WISRNet), an AHRC-funded Science and Culture project. The workshop aimed to bring together archivists and historians of science to discuss the challenges presented by the very structure of institutional archives to researchers of women in science.  It was tremendously successful, attended by an equal mix of historians of science and archivists from a  range of archives.  The workshop also attracted some women scientists involved in various organisations designed to promote and encourage women to take up science careers.

Why are women scientists reluctant to deposit their papers?

Joanna Corden, archivist at The Royal Society, discussed the difficulties of locating women in the archives of her institution – even contemporary women scientists, who appear reluctant to deposit their papers in the archive. She advocated using the material generated by the publication review process as means of discovering women’s activities: who submitted papers, which were accepted, who were the reviewers. Finding information is a ‘matter of trailing through what’s here’, she said.

Thinking laterally

The London Metropolitan archive might not be the first place one would think when searching for material relating to history of science, never mind women in science, but Howard Benge provided some good reasons to think again. Think laterally, was his advice: expand ideas of what science is to find women’s interpretation of science and where evidence of their scientific practice might be found; think business records (eg in engineering businesses); health-related records (Society of Apothecaries); home-based healthcare. Evidence is often hidden and not where you’d expect it to be, so how do you find it? He suggested that archivists should be more proactive: look for women in their archives, advertise what’s there, ask historians to work on what is found. He also advocated thinking beyond text: look at photographic material – look for women in unusual places; ask, why are they there? His researches in the LMA collections have revealed intriguing photographs of women building wings for airplanes in WW1 (with men watching in background); references to women employees in the records of the London Hydraulic Company during WW1 (what were they doing? ); and a fascinating collection relating to the work of the National Council of Women. This body produced numerous reports on scientific subjects relating to Government policy: who were the women on the Council? what did they do? what was their background? Perhaps one of the most interesting examples Howard produced (given the nature of this workshop) was of a collection relating to the General London Council’s 1985 ‘Women in Science’ campaign: launched to promote the involvement of women in science. And yet, here we are nearly 30 years later, still banging the same drum.

Women in geology 

As with most (if not all) scientific institutions, the British Geological Survey was very slow to admit women, yet, according to Andrew Morrison, there are several important women geologists who made significant contributions to the science but who are virtually unknown. BGS archives contain material relating to these women. Mary Crosfield (1859-1952) and Ethel Woods (1865-1939) met at Cambridge and together published ‘On the geology of the neighbourhood of Carmarthen’ in 1896. Mary Crosfield was the first woman to be elected as a fellow of the BGS in 1919. EML Hendricks (1887-1978), known as the ‘lost geologist’, was well respected within the discipline but found it impossible to get a job at the Survey. That honour went to Eileen Guppy (1904-1980), the first women geologist appointed by the BGS, in 1943.

anning_plesiosaurAt the Geological Society women were similarly excluded, being granted access to scientific meetings from 1901, but the first woman member was only appointed in 1919. Not surprisingly there is some overlap in the archives of the two institutions, both holding papers of Mary Anning (renowned dinosaur hunter and fossil collector) for instance, illustrating another problem more commonly encountered in researching female figures; that their documents tend to be split across a wide range of archives or hidden amongst the papers of make relatives.  Caroline Lam was able to introduce to some other women geologists who are not so well known:  Etheldred Bennett (1775-1845), for instance, is recognised as the first women geologist in Britain.  The Geological Society archives contain two examples of a common phenomenon, which served to hide women from scientists from public recognition: the wife (or sister) as assistant. In many cases, the wife or sister’s contribution was as important (and in some cases) more so than their male relative, but their work was often appropriated by the male partner and recognition of their contribution never publically acknowledged. Charlotte Murchison (1788-1869) is one such woman. She encouraged her husband to take up geology so she could ‘assist’ him, but became an accomplished palaeontologist in her own right and a close acquaintance of Mary Anning’s.  Mary Buckland, wife of William Buckland (pioneer of geology in early 19th  century Britain), is known for helping her husband in his research, but less well known as an experienced palaeontologist, marine biologist and accomplished scientific illustrator.

Scottish Women of Science

In Scotland, trawls through the catalogues of the National Library of Scotland, by librarian Catherine Booth, has revealed a long list of women scientists who made considerable contribution to their field but are unknown to most people today. Among them are proto-zoologist, Muriel Robertson; geneticist, Charlotte Auerbach; crystallographer (why does this field produce so many eminent women?), Marion Ross; the Natural History Museum’s Isabella Gordon, a crustacean expert who became known as the ‘grand old lady of crustacea’; and Mary, Countess of Rosse, who was experimenting with photographic techniques at the same time as Fox-Talbot.

More of these Scottish women scientists can be found at ‘Women in Science: celebrating trailblazers of the past’, an exhibition curated by the National Library of Scotland to celebrate Scottish women scientists. (

Imperial College

Anne Barrett, archivist at Imperial College London, is currently working on a collection of profiles of  women scientists from Imperial’s past, after being asked by some current female scientists to see what she could find out about their predecessors. She has uncovered so many women worthy of inclusion that she was forced to limit her selection to those women who were made Dames. Anne addressed one of the underlying challenges which permeated the workshop:  how do historians (and others) know that these ‘unknown’ women exist? Some of these women are Donald Rumsfeld’s known unknown’s, but some, even more obscure, are his unknown unknowns! How do historians begin to search for such material? As Howard said earlier in the day, Anne suggested that at least part of the onus lay with archivists to publicise the availability of material on these hidden women of science and to go in search of historians and others to take up their cause.  The historians in the room believed archivists’ hands would be bitten off in eager anticipation if such a scheme were to materialise.

Taking up Howard’s point about extending the definitions of science and scientific work, one area in which women are well-represented (and yet nevertheless rarely acknowedged) is scientific illustration. Andrea Hart from the Natural History Museum reminded us of this as she spoke about an ongoing project to assess the artwork collections by women artists held by the Museum. But what is known of these highly skilled and knowledgeable female artists, who, through their ability to represent what they saw accurately on paper contributed significantly to our understanding of the natural world?

Freshwater Biological Association

Supporting  suspicions that we need to move away from focusing on the major learned institutions if we are to find women scientists of note, Hardy Schwamm  provided a list of six notable women scientists (spanning the whole of the 20th century) hidden within the uncatalogued archival collections of the Freshwater Biological Association.  The association was unable to persuade The National Archive fund a cataloguing project so the material remains undocumented in detail. How many more small archives are there in a similar position, hiding within their uncatalogued depths a rich seam of information of the work of hidden women scientists?

An Historian’s Perspective

Patricia Fara provided an historian’s perspective on the challenge of discovering and writing about women scientists in the past, echoing much of what the archivists had already said. She urged researchers to think more laterally when looking for such women; often they exist as invisible ‘assistants’, their work embedded unacknowledged within that of fathers, husbands, brothers. We need to question what we mean by science and broaden our definitions so as not to overlook the the very important contributions made by women in communicating science: as illustrators, educationalists and writers and interpreters of scientific tracts. The importance of family connections cannot be over stressed, so a good place to look for women contributing to science is in the papers belonging to their male relatives; or in those belonging to the few men scientists who positively encouraged women. William Bragg, for instance, was perhaps responsible for the unusually large number of female X-ray crystallographers referred to earlier as he encouraged women to work in this field.

There was much debate following these talks about what could be and should be done to help rescue these women from oblivion, to resurrect them as role models and icons for the female scientists of tomorrow.


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