Science Careers Blog

June 1, 2012

More on Women in Science

As our sister blog Science Insider reported on 31 May, the Kavli Foundation has honored seven scientists with its prestigious and lucrative biennial award for outstanding work in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. In the very week that Science Careers presents a special issue on women in science, four of these distinguished researchers are female: Jane X. Luu, Mildred S. Dresselhaus, and Ann M. Graybiel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge and Cornelia Isabella Bargmann of Rockefeller University in New York City.

That more than half the winners of this major science prize are women seems especially remarkable in light of an obituary I happened to read the other day about a "major" yet largely unknown contributor to the field of immunology, Elizabeth Marion Press.

That estimation of Press's significance was published in The Biochemist in June 2009 by Nancy Hogg, a group leader at Cancer Research UK London Research Institute, and Lisa Steiner, a professor of immunology at MIT and the first female member of the MIT biology department.  

Known as Betty, Press died in 2008 at the age of 88. For 25 years she had worked "side by side" with Rodney Porter, who shared the 1972 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Gerald Edelman for determining the chemical structure of antibodies, the article states.  "Modest and understated," she had only a bachelor's degree, although she supervised Hogg's Ph.D. research. 

"A generation later she would probably have acquired the standard research qualifications,"  The Biochemist article notes, but she reportedly did not consider this important as it did not interfere with her work. In part because of this lack, however, "Betty's immense contribution to the topics of antibody and early complement structures has not been acknowledged in the history of the field. She receives little mention in the reviews of Rod Porter's scientific life." But another reason is doubtlessly "an attitude towards women scientists that even the fairest of male scientists unwittingly adopted in those days." 

A more famous case of that "attitude" involved Press's exact contemporary, Rosalind Franklin, who did research that proved crucial to the discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin held a Ph.D., and her death in 1958 at the age of 37 rendered forever moot the question of whether she would have shared the 1962 Nobel Prize, which went to three men, Frances Crick, James Watson, and Maurice Wilkins. Without her knowledge or permission, the three had examined a crucial X-ray diffraction image of DNA that she had made. For decades, historians of science have debated how much this contributed to the discovery of the double helix and whether, except for this incident, Franklin might have been first to unravel the most important biological question of the twentieth century.

According to the obituary, Press was delighted when Porter won the Nobel Prize because she believed it honored his team for an achievement to which "they had all contributed." Twenty-two papers, including some of great scientific importance, list her as a co-author, "but paper counting in no way reveals her overall contribution or her role in the scientific achievements of this eminent research group," Hogg and Steiner write.

It's great to see that no "attitude" any longer deprives four outstanding researchers of the recognition that they deserve.

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