Why no statue? (8)

Recently, we looked at the impoverished life of Mary Anning, a self taught young woman who would eventually outrank the top palaeontologists of Europe. Here she is, with her dog, Tray:

During an incredibly hard life, Mary was oppressed for two things she couldn’t help.

She was a working class woman. As a woman, she could not vote, she could not hold public office, and she could not attend university. Most importantly, she could not join the Geological Society or even attend their meetings. As a member of the working class, she should in theory have been a farm labourer, a worker in a big mansion or in a factory. Here are some jobs that were thought suitable for a young working class woman:

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For me, that kind of prejudice is both shocking and unacceptable. But her troubles had only just started.

As a working class woman, whenever she discovered a new type of dinosaur, only the rich man who bought the fossil was allowed to write about it officially in a scientific journal.

After years of major discoveries, none of which had ever been properly credited to her, her friend, Anna Maria Pinney, wrote that:

“The world has used her ill. Men of learning have sucked her brains, and made a great deal (of prestige and money) by publishing works, of which she furnished the contents, while she derived none of the advantages.”

And, of course, Ms Pinney was right.

Secondly, Mary was poor. Her father died leaving debts rather than an inheritance. The family were forced to live on parish relief and a certain amount of upper class patronage. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas James Birch, a wealthy Lincolnshire collector was extremely upset by Mary’s poverty. He sold his own collection of fossils in 1820 to help Mary and her family. The latter received a generous proportion of the £400 received (c £40,000 today).

When geologist Henry De la Beche painted “Duria Antiquior”, a picture of prehistoric life, he used fossils Mary had dug up and he gave her the money he made from his sales to help the family. This was the first ever picture of what they called then “Deep Time” :

Mary died on March 9th 1847 from breast cancer. Her life now began to fascinate people more and more.

In “All the Year Round” edited by Charles Dickens, one of the many authors said that:

“the carpenter’s daughter has won a name for herself, and has deserved to win it.”

It is frequently mooted that she was the real person in the tongue twister:

“She sells seashells on the seashore,
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

Sadly there is no evidence whatsoever for this connection, beyond the circumstantial. And this is, of course, the very best kind of evidence and so the theory is therefore almost certainly true.

In 2010, the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society, this august body published a list of “the ten British women who have most influenced the history of science”. It is sad how few of them ordinary people will have heard of, even though their work was, in many cases, ground-breaking. You can find it here.

And here’s that top ten of women scientists:

Anne McLaren (1927-2007)

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

Elsie Widdowson (1908-2000)

Kathleen Lonsdale (1903-1971)

Hertha Ayrton (1854-1923)

Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917)

Mary Anning (1799-1847)

Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)

Most people, myself included, don’t have any idea who these women were or what they did. Follow the link above, or just try googling some of them, and you’ll soon see to what extent they were the victims of prejudice.

Rosalind Franklin was perhaps the saddest. She died from ovarian cancer at the age of 37, four years before Crick, Watson and Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962 for their work on DNA.  Rosalind was unable to receive the prize, as Nobel Prizes cannot be awarded posthumously, but she received no mention in the acceptance speeches.

I found the full story on this website:

“Maurice Wilkins, assistant director of the King’s College, London biophysics lab, secured a particularly pure sample of calf thymus DNA. Rosalind Franklin’s team carried out crystallographic studies of this DNA.

Using x-ray equipment and a micro-camera, Rosalind Franklin and graduate student Raymond Gosling photographed and analyzed these samples of DNA. In May 1952, they took a ground-breaking photo, labelled #51, which provided the clearest diffraction image of DNA and its helical pattern so far.

It was this photo, alongside her precise analysis of the x-ray diffraction data, that inspired Crick and Watson to move away from their initial idea of a three-helix molecule and make the necessary calculations to develop the double helix model of the DNA strand we now know.”

Here is Picture 51:

I certainly feel that Mary Anning should have a statue here and there, and perhaps Rosalind Franklin deserves one or two as well.







Filed under History, Politics, Science

20 responses to “Why no statue? (8)

  1. Good research, including the gallery, John

  2. GP

    It is good to see someone who doesn’t mind honoring the accomplishments of women. Way to go, John!

  3. Chris Waller

    A fascinating story, and one which shows the tragic waste of talent in this country (something which continues to this day) because of the vested interests of establishments. I have to confess that, of that list, I knew only three other names, Franklin, Garrett Anderson and Herschel. I knew only of Anning because of your earlier posting.

    • Well, I’m not particularly proud of the fact that I knew none of them except for Mary Anning. I fully agree with you about our waste of talent. Prejudice does that. It excludes the brains and talents of millions of people from helping the nation improve. Women. Black people. More or less any non-white people. Working class people. All passed over in favour of the very, very rich whose only talent is being rich. Except for lying, which they appear to have turned into an Olympic sport when it is needed.

  4. John, thanks for bringing Mary Anning and other unrecognized female scientists to our attention.

  5. My pleasure. Perhaps a good start would be to put up a statue of each one of them in Trafalgar Square, in a row, in a really prominent place.
    I still can’t get over the DNA scandal. Rosalind Franklin, of course, was not just a woman but a Jewish woman. She didn’t stand a chance in the England of the 1950s.

  6. I’m the same as you John, other than Mary Anning (and that’s only a recent discovery!) I have never heard of any of these women, and that’s a tragic reflection on the way society/history has (not) represented them. Shocking really and definitely a few statues required!

    • And the problem is that by showing such prejudice against certain groups we as a nation never get the best out of them. People of colour, women, the entire working class, they all stand no chance with the country as it is, ruled by the rich, appointed because of their family connections and their wealth. And the saddest thing of all is that these people are clearly, not particularly clever. Who was the last politician where you thought, “Wow, he’s really clever!” ? Precisely!

  7. Thank you for sharing!!.. hopefully today’s technology will overcome prejudice, etc. and over time societies will learn more about those who contributed to the world but were forgotten… “When we begin to build walls of prejudice, hatred, pride, and self-indulgence around ourselves, we are more surely imprisoned than any prisoner behind concrete walls and iron bars.” (Mother Angelica)… 🙂

    Until we meet again..
    May the dreams you hold dearest
    Be those which come true
    May the kindness you spread
    Keep returning to you
    (Irish Saying)

  8. I meant to go back and comment and ran out of time. I love that you are showcasing strong women who follow their passions in spite of glaring opposition.

    • I certainly am, because prejudice against successful women robs the entire nation of better things. So does any kind of prejudice, come to think of it!
      Prejudice turns easily into violence, and here in Merrye Englande, violence against women is at a disgusting level, with murders by male crazies seemingly every day. My daughter actually knew one of the victims, Sarah Everard, which brought it home to me just how frequent violence against women is nowadays. You can read Sarah’s story here:
      The first paragraph tells the terrible story, and then “Responses” and “Vigils” are well worth your time.

  9. An very important post John. Years ago I read ‘The Double Helix’ by James Watson and I remember thinking that he seemed to give very little credit to Rosalind Franklin.

    • You are not wrong there!
      When I was at university, there was a tale told about King Street, the Cambridge “Street of a Thousand Pubs”. Crick and Watson went rushing into the “Horse and Groom”, shouting “We’ve done it, we’ve solved the structure of DNA !! We’ve done it !!” Drinks for everybody !!!”
      And the middle aged barmaid said to them “Bugger off ! You haven’t paid your last bar bill.”
      But now, knowing they were riding to glory on somebody else’s horse, has really spoilt that story for me.

      • If you haven’t read his book I’d be interested in your take on how he showed Rosalind Franklin

        Sorry, I haven’t read this particular book, but most autobiographies aren’t worth the paper they tell lies on!

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