Monday, October 16, 2006

Women in science

A week or two ago I mentioned here the names carved on the facade of the original building of the Boston Public Library, designed by Charles Follen McKim and opened in 1895. A librarian at the BPL has very kindly provided me with a list of the names, more than 500 in all, a kind of roll-of-honor of (mostly) Western civilization.

With few exceptions, only last names are used, and there are some I would not be able to identify without help. Philosophers, inventors, writers, artists, military men, religious leaders, mathematicians, politicians. Scientists are well represented, from Hipparchus to Agassiz. Women make a modest showing in literature (Sappho, Austen, Bronte, George Eliot, etc.), but the only two women scientists I notice are Mary Somerville and Maria Mitchell.

It would have been interesting if the new 1972 wing of the BPL, designed by Philip Johnson, had been inscribed with an updated list of names from the intervening 77 years. We can be sure that women would have figured more prominently. Here is a roll-call of women in science from a 2002 issue of Discover magazine. If you scroll down to the Rs you will see why I appreciate the greater opportunities that women now enjoy. Let's hope that my female grandchildren -- should any of them drift towards science -- will meet with even fewer impediments to success.