THE WOMEN IN HISTORY WE DON'T TALK ABOUT
BBC Focus - Science & Technology|March 2021
Beyond the exceptional talents of Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin and Ada Lovelace, it’d be easy to think that women didn’t used to participate in science. But as science historians Leila McNeill and Anna Reser reveal to Sara Rigby, women have contributed to our understanding of the world, stretching all the way back to antiquity
Leila McNeill and Anna Reser

READING ABOUT SCIENCE HISTORY, YOU OFTEN GET THE IMPRESSION THAT IT WAS EXCLUSIVELY MEN DOING SCIENCE FOR CENTURIES UNTIL THERE WERE A FEW SUPERSTARS, PEOPLE LIKE MARIE CURIE OR ROSALIND FRANKLIN, WHO BROKE THROUGH. WAS THAT REALLY THE CASE?

LEILA MCNEILL: It certainly isn’t, and we can find women participating in science going back to antiquity all around the world. And one of the problems with looking at figures like Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin is that they were anomalous in the sense that when they were making their discoveries, it was still very rare for women to be in higher institutions of learning, and scientific institutions in particular. And so when you’re just trying to look for women in those spaces, those are the figures that tend to pop up. They’re easy to find because institutions keep records and things like that.

One of the things that we were interested in doing was looking beyond those institutions where formal records are kept, to see the different ways that women could have been participating in science on their own terms and in their own way outside of these spaces.

We find women doing this in all kinds of ways, going all the way back to antiquity. And one of the most common ways that we see women participating in medicine is as healers and midwives in various forms. We find that to be the case in antiquity all the way through the Middle Ages, up until the 19th Century when medicine was professionalised. At that point, it was taken out of the hands of women who were practising these things in their homes and their communities, and taken into that institutionalised setting where, again, that’s where you start getting those unsung women in science, the ones who broke into that institutional barrier.

WAS THERE EVER A TIME OR PLACE WHEN WOMEN DIDN’T ENGAGE IN SCIENCE?

ANNA RESER: I don’t think so. I think one of the things that we had to do for this book, and that I think we need to do more broadly when looking at the history of women in science, is to rethink what counts as science.

We use the term ‘pursuing knowledge of nature’ because institutionalised, formalised science didn’t exist until the early-modern period in a way that people recognise. Before that, you’re not really looking for science per se in those terms. But there are people pursuing knowledge about nature, and women can be seen doing that in every period that men were as well.

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