Historic photos of female scientists at work

I'm sure there are a lot of people reading this who will have a hard time understanding why I love this collection of historic photos of female scientists. "Why female scientists?" I can already hear them asking. "Aren't you doing a disservice to female scientists by singling them out as something special?"

But here's the thing. These photos are special, and what they show is something that the vast majority of us have not had much exposure to: Images of women (who are not Marie Curie), working in the sciences prior to the 1970s or 1980s. And that matters.

When I was in school, I was presented with a history of science that excluded these women entirely. Other than a precious few exceptions that seemed to prove the rule, what I learned was that women had not been scientists. Even if you follow that up with a helpful reminder that women can be scientists today if they want, that edited version of history is (from my personal experience as a little girl) discouraging to little girls.

Meanwhile, it turns out that there were plenty of women working in the sciences, all along. Presenting a version of history that pretends they didn't exist devalues them, and contributes to the idea that, when we talk about the history of women in science, we're really just being PC, rather than talking about things that actually happened.

That's why I think these photos are important. They bring attention to women we should have been aware of, and they help to create a fuller, more diverse perspective on the history of science. Both those things are pretty awesome, as far as I am concerned.

The photos come from the Science Service (now the Society for Science and the Public), which basically served a role of science popularizer and news service in the first half of the 20th century. (The collection includes photos of women who wrote for the Science Service, images I consider pretty powerful since they are basically presenting me with people who did the job I now do.).

The photo above is a picture of chemist Margaret Foster, who was born in 1895.

Margaret D. Foster (1895-1970) working in the lab in 1919. Foster was the first woman chemist to work for the United States Geological Survey, starting in 1918, just three days after receiving her A.B. from Illinois College. Foster's studies primarily focused on the analysis of natural waters. Her work on the Manhattan Project resulted in two new quantitative methods of analysis, one for uranium and one for thorium.

View the photo collection on Flickr

Read more about the photo collection, and find out how you can help the Smithsonian Institution identify some of the women in the photos, and add more information to their biographies.

Via Jacquelyn Gill