Scottish Women of Science: Edinburgh library is Celebrating Trailblazers from our Past

By Ben Miller | 08 March 2013

Exhibition preview: Scottish Women of Science: Celebrating Trailblazers from our Past, National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, until April 30 2013

A black and white photo of a woman from the 18th century wearing a frilly black dress
Williamina Fleming discovered hundreds of stars and the Horsehead Nebula after moving to America from Dundee in 1878© National Library of Scotland
Elizabeth Fulhame, a chemist whose life is otherwise shrouded in mystery, was roundly criticised for “exceeding her bounds as a woman” when her book, An Essay on Combustion, was published in 1794.

It was then translated into German and republished in Philadelphia, where she was promptly elected an honorary member of the Philadelphia Chemical Society.

And she’s now joined 11 women profiled in this show at the National Library, where curators say tough choices had to be made in formulating the shortlist, from which living scientists and those holding medical backgrounds were excluded to simplify the process.

If her story sounds captivating, her fellow botanists, astrologers, artists and academics also had amazing lives.

A photo of a dark yellow newspaper cut-out of a Scottish scientists who won an MBE
Victoria Drummond was born at Megginch Castle in Perthshire, but her aristocratic roots paled behind her MBE-winning career as a marine engineer© National Library of Scotland
There’s Elizabeth Blackwell, born in Aberdeen and admired for her voracious sketches of plant specimens at the Chelsea Physic Garden, made to support the imprisoned debtor husband she had moved to London with.

Mary Somerville was pronounced the Queen of 19th Century Science following her death in 1872, having been the first female elected to the Royal Astronomical Society.

Williamina Fleming went from maid to star discovered at Harvard College Observatory in America (emigrating from Dundee), and Maria Gordon was the first woman to gain a PhD from the University of Munich, proving that limestone peaks were formed by movements in the Earth’s crust in between fanning out dozens of papers on the geology of the South Tyrol region in Italy.

“Most of these women are virtually unknown,” says Catherine Booth, the Library’s Science Curator, observing a time when learning circles remained men-only and universities were only beginning to move towards equality.

“Their work is still influencing a new generation of scientists. They are representative of a much bigger group of female Scottish scientists whose achievements we are proud to celebrate.”

  • Open 10am-8pm (5pm Saturday, 2pm-5pm Sunday). Admission free. Follow the museum on Twitter @natlibscot.

Six more scientists from the show:

Muriel Robertson
Zoologist (1883-1973)

Born in Glasgow and studying at Glasgow University, Robertson is known for her work on parasites which causes illnesses such as sleeping sickness, and played an important role during both world wars in identifying types of the bacteria Clostridium, which can infect war wounds. One of the first women to be elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Victoria Drummond Marine engineer (1894-1978)

A Perthshire-born goddaughter of Queen Victoria, Drummond’s passion for engineering saw her serve on a number of ships after an apprenticeship at Caledon Ship Works in Dundee. She overcame establishment opposition to win an MBE and a war medal for bravery, having single-handedly kept the engines of the SS Bonita running in spite of German bombardment.

Charlotte (Lotte) Auerbach Geneticist (1899-1944)

Lotte spent much of her working life in Edinburgh after fleeing Nazi Germany in 1933, contributing heavily to the study of genetic mutations and being noted as one of the first scientists to understand the dangers of nuclear radiation. One of the first women to be made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Isabella Gordon Marine biologist (1901-1988)

The “Grand Old Lady of Carcinology” (thus known through her science of crustaceans such as lobsters and crabs) was born in Keith to impoverished parents, earning a bursary to continue her education. Her working life was largely spent at the British Museum, but Gordon provided expertise and advice both at home and abroad, including to Emperor Hirohito of Japan.

Marion C Gray Mathematician (1902-1979)

Born in Ayr, Gray spent most of her working life in the United States with large companies including the phone giant AT&T and Bell Laboratories. She made an important discovery in graph theory which is still cited by scientists today.

Marion A S Ross Physicist (1903-1994)

A graduate from Edinburgh, the city where she was born, Ross’s studies into the structure of crystals still stir scientific debate more than 70 years later. A physics prize commemorates the name of this first director of Edinburgh University’s Fluid Dynamics Unit.

More pictures:

A photo of a cutting from an ancient science book showing a drawing of a plant
Aberdeen-born amateur botanist and artist Elizabeth Blackwell (1700-1758) was revered for her sketches© National Library of Scotland
A photo of a female marine scientist posing in warm clothing and with crew members
Drummond at work© National Library of Scotland
A black and white photo of a female scientist looking into the camera wearing a shirt
Isabella Gordon (1901-1988) was an authority on crustaceans© National Library of Scotland
A black and white drawing of a female scientist sitting in a chair looking at the artist
Blackwell's husband was jailed after he ran into debts when his printing business failed© Wellcome Trust
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