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Beryl Lieff Benderly

Two Eminent Scientists Come to Different Conclusions on Work-Life Balance

“It’s not humanly possible to be a good wife, a good mother and a first-class scientist. No one can do it–something has to go.” That discouraging statement, contrary to what you may suppose, comes not from a snobbish misogynist but from Lynn Margulis. At the time of her death on November 22 at the age of 73, Margulis was Distinguished University Professor of Geosciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

A prominent biologist, Margulis’s accomplishments earned her, among other honors, the National Medal of Science and membership in the National Academy of Sciences. But Margulis apparently considered herself a failure in at least one important area in life, according to the Washington Post (the source of the previous quotation). “I quit my job as wife twice,” it quotes her as saying. Margulis’s marriages to the celebrated astronomer, best-selling author, and TV presenter Carl Sagan and to the chemist and lawyer Thomas N. Margulis, which produced a total of four children, both ended in divorce.

Her remarks contrast sharply with those of another eminent woman scientist on whom we reported when she passed away in June. Wife, mother, and Nobel Laureate Rosalyn Yalow, who died in May a bit shy of her 90th birthday, believed that “all women scientists should marry, rear children, cook and clean in order to achieve fulfillment as a real woman” and “felt it a duty to speak to young women, to encourage them to have careers, particularly careers in science.” At 22 she had wed a fellow graduate student, Aaron Yalow, to whom she remained married for 49 years, until his death in 1992, and with whom she had two children.
Why the sharp difference in views? There’s no simple answer, of course, only a number of suggestive possibilities. Different temperaments could be a factor; Margulis was commonly described as outspoken and Yalow as emotionally restrained. Different career paths might play a role: Margulis followed the classic tenure track in the early years of second-wave feminism while Yalow, in large measure because of the rampant sexism of the 1950s, did all of her pathbreaking research as a staff scientist at the Veterans Administration in the Bronx, New York. There, she collaborated for more than 20 years with physician Solomon Berson, who died before the Nobel was awarded for their shared work developing the radioimmunoassay technique.
The difference of opinion could also reflect Margulis’s larger family: Four kids requires a lot more work than two.

At bottom, it may just depend on differing definitions of success. Yalow, for example, believed that “her children paid no price for the demands of her scientific career,” the Post quotes a biographer as writing, while her daughter reportedly said, “She just wasn’t physically around….She didn’t do the things that parents are supposed to do.”  Nonetheless, her daughter reportedly said, “She was a pretty wonderful mother.”

Yalow, of course, never claimed that it was easy, just that she had figured out a way of managing that worked for her. Yalow mentioned in her Nobel Prize biography that the family employed
live-in help until her younger child was 9; after that, the amount of
household help declined.  She even mentioned the detail of living “less than a mile from the VA” in her Nobel autobiography. Figuring out what works for oneself and one’s family is the challenge that she, Margulis, and every wife and mother who wants a career in science — or, in fact, in any other field — faces. That two different women took different approaches and came to different conclusions is hardly surprising. It does, however, remind us of the most important lesson of all: that no one answer works for everyone, and each person and family must follow the path that seems right for them.