140 Years of Women in Science at UCL

140 Years of Women in Science at UCL

UCL has seen many brilliant women walk through its doors, but they were not always considered equal to their male counterparts. 

Many of the UK’s most important social milestones have been achieved at UCL. Since its inception in 1826, UCL has been an important progressive force within higher education and science. The university was founded on the radical and secular principles of its spiritual founder, the philosopher and social reformist Jeremy Bentham, who sought to make education more widely available to the public. It was the first university to offer degrees to students regardless of their religion and, in time, regardless of sex.

Exactly 140 years ago, in 1878, UCL became the first university in the UK to allow women to study on the same terms as men, and today the principles that Bentham espoused two centuries ago could not have made a more obvious impact. Vast parts of the student body are made up of people who would traditionally be excluded from education in the past. International students now make up nearly half of all of those enrolled, and 56% of students are women, a fitting testament to Bentham, the outspoken social activist who inspired the creation of the university.

Through becoming the first British university to admit women to study science, UCL opened the door for the UK’s first professionally accredited female scientists, a huge stepping stone towards equality, both for feminism and the scientific community. In modern times, we often like to think that the benefits of equality are clear to everyone, but there are many which are not immediately apparent. There are the obvious points. First of all, keeping women out of science in the past was simply unfair. Disallowing the participation of women prevented them from being fully active and respected members of society, and crippled their ability to make meaningful impact: banning half of the population from participation prevented intelligent people from making vital contributions

Perhaps a less obvious advantage is the benefits of diversity in creating objective science. One of the most important aspects of science is its impartiality and objectivity: science and scientists can never totally remove their own personal bias and can only ever seek to minimise it. A scientific community composed entirely of white, middle class British men, for example, will mean that everyone in the community will share many of the same cultural biases which can remain unchecked. This was particularly pronounced in the case of early Darwinian evolutionists who used to believe that men were the driving force behind evolution and were superior to women. Their reasoning was that men were bolder and took more risks, a theory which catered very well to the dominant sexist views held by most Victorians.

Since the rise of women in science and of suffragism, however, this bias has since been corrected. Today, women in the scientific community can recognise and correct male-centred bias in order to strengthen the objectivity and validity of scientific theories, and therefore have enhanced the quality and diversity of scientific research.

Despite being founded on progressive foundations, it took 52 years following the establishment of UCL before the university acted on the important benefits that women had to offer and allowed them to participate with their male peers. It isn’t difficult to see the tremendous contributions of these female scientists over the last century, and many of the world’s most important female scientists have been educated here at UCL.

For example, Hertha Ayrton, who earned her BSc in 1881, was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In 1902 she became the first woman nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. Although she could not be elected to this position because she was married, she later received the Royal Society’s Hughes Medal for her investigations in 1906. Yvonne Barr, as another example, was an accomplished virologist who graduated with a PhD from UCL in 1966. She jointly discovered the Epstein-Barr virus, a common form of herpes, two years earlier.

Another noteworthy female UCL graduate is Dame Kathleen Lonsdale. Lonsdale was a celebrated x-ray crystallographer who was well known for her work in establishing the structure of organic chemicals. She is, in addition, perhaps the most accomplished female scientist which UCL has ever produced, having achieved several milestones for female scientists. She was the first female president of the International Union of Crystallography and of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Additionally, she was one of the first to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1945. Even after women formally entered the world of science (and nearly every faculty at UCL in fact), there were still glass ceilings which required shattering; it took a further 39 years before women were granted access to the Faculty of Medicine in 1917.

Today, however, medicine at UCL has seen a great deal of reform, with well over 50% of medical students being female. Other fields, like the natural sciences and psychology, have also seen a dramatic increase in female enrolment. However, some other disciplines, like engineering and physics, still lack strong female representation. In addition, though many women participate in undergraduate science, far fewer study towards postgraduate research. Fewer still achieve PhDs or become tenured professors, a clear indication that there is still a great deal of work to do for women to achieve real equality in science.

With this in mind, UCL is continuously striving to give women confidence and support in the scientific community. In addition to being one of the first universities in the UK to sign on to the Athena SWAN Charter for the equality of women in STEM and higher education, UCL also aims continue its support for equality through organisations such as the 50:50 Gender Equality Group and UCL Women for academic staff.

Over the last 140 years, the scientific community at UCL has been enriched and enlivened due to the participation of female scientists. From laboratories to lecture halls, UCL’s progressive legacy survives via the varied and numerous contributions of its female members in academia and beyond, and will continue to do so for the many years to come.

This article was originally published in Issue 721 of Pi Magazine

Artwork by Carol Bartlett