March is women’s history month and we thought it was appropriate to dedicate an article to women in marine science. It is not a secret that science (and related subjects) has had gender inequality right from the outset. But we should celebrate the successes and appreciate the efforts of those who have campaigned for equality over the past century. Through researching women scientists who have had a career at the MBA, I have truly been on an inspirational journey. Being passionate about history, marine biology and equal opportunities I felt it was a fitting choice as my first article written for The Marine Biologist.
A good place to start as with writing any article is to speak to the most experienced people. With the wealth of knowledge possessed by Dr Eve Southward, Dr Gerald Boalch and Dr Colin Kilvington I was able to gain a good grounding on the history of local women marine scientist and without them I would be greatly out of my depth. Researching online and in the hard copy archives the detective work was fruitful in providing dates, quotes and stories. Stories of success and tragedy were unearthed and unfortunately all cannot be relayed in a single article. The National Marine Biological Library (NMBL) librarians have been very helpful in retrieving fascinating images from within the archives which I hope you will enjoy as much as I have.
Before the existence of the MBA, there was a small but significant group of women scientists and amateur naturalists in the Southwest of England, mostly dedicated to the study of botany. Seaweed collecting was a popular pastime back in the Victorian era, women would collect, identify, arrange and press the seaweeds into beautiful scrap books. Whilst most women were amateur naturalists at this point in time those with a particular aptitude could go on to study these organisms in more detail. Women scientists were an unusual concept and although often frowned upon (at the time) these women laid much of the foundations for algal research in terms of taxonomy, anatomy and life histories, and cultivation. A herbarium is a collection of dried plants or algae and the MBA archives hosts a wonderful example. The herbarium here was initially assembled by taxonomist Dr Mary Parke in the 1940’s and including herself, six out of the eight contributors were women. Some of us here at the MBA attempted seaweed pressing to update the library displays, although our work is not as spectacular as specimens found within the herbarium it’s still worth a look on your next visit.
Dr Molly Spooner, a globe-trotting oil spill investigator was a remarkable scientist who not only left her story and scientific papers behind but donations too, funding budding marine biologist to gain practical skills in marine science.
As technology has moved on we no longer rely solely on illustrations and scientific drawings, a profession at which many women phycologists had particular proficiency. Marie Lebour produced some fantastic watercolour illustrations, a prominent one being her ‘Phytoplankton’ watercolour. We can compare the detail in these images to modern microscopic photography today.
Over the past hundred years women have gained momentum with their rights in the scientific community and established deep roots in marine biology, especially botany. Since then perceptions have been changing concerning a woman’s place in a STEM (Science, Technology Engineering, Maths) role. Changing these outdated attitudes through different types of media has been of paramount importance: SciFi films have surely been the champions in this area. Now there are many funds, events and communities where women are welcomed and supported through the academic pipeline. But 'leakages' still exist and plugging them is the key to combating persistent inequality. Social media has been pivotal in connecting women through hashtags and online societies too.
With all the information I have gathered so far I wish that I could write a book to collate these stories and unfortunately many names and images were not included (but not forgotten). I hope this blog and the upcoming article in the April edition of The Marine Biologist magazine not only celebrates the strides we have taken but also provides hope for a positive future.