women in science

4000 years of women in science. The book The Hidden Giants published by www.lulu.com contains all the information.

Location: United States

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Chapter 2

“…such beautiful minds…”

Let us leave behind the early scientists like the honored Hypatia and En’Hedu’anna and travel forward in time through the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. I want to share some stories of the women who persisted and succeeded by following her shining example.

In imperial Rome women could be seen carrying copies of Plato’s Republic because it touted education for women. In general the status of women in ancient Rome was a bit better than their sisters’ status in ancient Greece. It was not unusual for a young girl of plebian parentage to attend elementary school. Upper class men and women had private tutors. Among the attributes of a good wife was her ability to converse intelligently on philosophy and geometry although the true bluestocking (scholar) was probably rare. And, as happened in Greece, many women were known as worthy poets and orators. All over the empire of Rome women of wealth and influence functioned as benefactors and participants in the public world. For example, in the 4th century the young woman Eustochium edited Jerome’s translation of the Bible, the future Latin Vulgate .

In 337 CE the Roman Empire was split among the three sons of Constantine into eastern, western, and central. In 475 CE Romulus Augustus became the last of the western Roman emperors. He abdicated a year later, and the western Roman empire came to an end. Yet the barbarians who conquered Rome were not slothful scholars. The daughter of the first Ostrogothic king of Rome (Theordoric the Great), Amalsuntha (498 – 535 CE), could converse in Latin, Greek and Gothic. She ruled the Ostrogothic (Roman) empire when her father suddenly died. An ivory representation of Amalsuntha is shown on the left. In 535 CE her cousin usurped the throne and had her killed. Less than two years later the Byzantine emperor Justinian invaded Italy to avenge her death, ending the Ostrogothic rule in Italy. He also closed the hundreds of years old school of philosophy in Athens – the wonderful Academy of Plato founded in 387 BCE. Many of the professors went to Persia and Syria. But it was a loss to scholarship.

Despite the loss of the Academy of Plato and despite the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, the wisdom of women and men lit with rare, flickering candles of scholarship the Dark Ages that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.

As always, women kept their medical tradition alive even in those Dark Ages. For example, in Constantinople medicine (and philosophy) gave us the physician Nicerata. Jumping ahead a bit – seven hundred years later, interestingly, one of the best equipped hospitals of the time was built in Constantinople by Emperor John II (1118 – 1143 CE). Men and women were housed in separate buildings, each containing ten wards of fifty beds, with one ward reserved for surgical cases and another for long-term patients. The staff was a team of twelve male doctors and one fully qualified female doctor as well as a female surgeon. I don’t know their names but they existed. It was not the first large hospital in the area though. In 1096, the first Crusade bought a need for expanded medical facilities in Constantinople. The emperor Alexius built a 10,000 bed hospital/orphanage managed by his daughter Anna Comena. She had been well trained by tutors in astronomy, medicine, history, military affairs, history, geography, and math. Running a hospital must have been easy for her. She also wrote a history of her father’s life. Called the Alexiad this document forms a primary resource for the first Crusade.

Italian women continued to contribute to medicine. The first Western type university was founded in Salerno, Italy in 875 CE as a medical school. And from that time to this, for over a thousand years, women equally with men have been welcome at the doors of Italian universities. So it is not remarkable that there were so many talented Italian women. As early as 1292 there were in Paris no less than eight physicians who were women although they were not quite the scholars their Italian sisters were. Jacobina Félicie (c. 1322 CE) was born in Florence and worked in Paris as a physician. She ultimately lost her battle to practice medicine thus setting a precedent against women attending medical school in France unbroken until the 1800’s. A number of the Italians are listed in this paragraph. Trotula lived in the 11th century and held a chair in the school of medicine at the University of Salerno. The Regimen sanitatis salernitatum contained many contributions from her work and was widely used well into the 16th century. She promoted cleanliness, a balanced diet, exercise, and avoidance of stress – a very modern combination. Salerno was home to other women of medicine including Abella, Rebecca de Guarna, Margaritan, and Mercuriade (all 14th century CE). Among those who held diplomas for surgery were Maria Incarnata of Naples and Thomasia de Mattio of Castro Isiae. Alessandra Giliana (c. 1318 CE) was an anatomist at the University of Bologna. Dorotea Bucca (1360 – 1436 CE) held a chair of medicine at the University of Bologna. Laura Ceretta (1469 – 1488 CE) gave public lectures on philosophy. Battista Malatesta (1383 – 1450 CE) of Urbino taught philosophy as well. Calrice di Durisio (15th century CE) was a surgeon who specialized in diseases of the eye.

That is one thousand years at a gulp. Let me back up and travel a bit more slowly.

The major religions tended to claim separate parts of the known world. Christianity spread throughout western Europe after 313 CE when Constantine’s Edit of Milan proclaimed it tolerated throughout the Roman Empire. Islam became strong in Western Asia after 622 CE (the Hegira of Mohammed). In 732 CE at Tours, France, Charles Martel stopped the expansion of Islam into western Europe. The works of Confucius dominated in China. The Buddhists grew more numerous and spread out from India to China and beyond.

Looking at the Far East, a queen of Korea, Sonduk (c. 630 CE), built astronomical observatories. One of her observatories called the Tower of the Sun and Moon stood until the 20th century. Chinese women were inventive. Around 577 CE the first version of matches were invented by the women of the northern Ch’i province in China. They were under siege and needed to start fires for cooking. Moving to the Middle East, during the 13th century over 100 women taught at levels equivalent to a professorship at Dervis monasteries (Turkey) in the Islamic world. Names of two such teachers are Fatima-bint’Abbas and Zeynep. But other than those small bits of information I know very little about the Middle and Far East and Africa.

So this is a limited story, limited by my ignorance. I believe there are wonderful women to find in those other cultures.

Coming back to the decline of Rome, as the Dark Ages drew across Europe centers of learning, abbeys and convents usually associated with the expanding Christian church were built. For example, in France, Queen Radegund (518 – 587 CE) forsook her royal state and founded an abbey for women at Poitiers, France. She was quite interested in medicine and had the quite radical notion of washing the patient clean! For the following several hundred years such abbeys were the refuge of women who wished to follow a separate way filled often with scholarship as well as prayer.

By 800 CE many Christian monasteries, abbeys, and convents existed for the devout woman of the Western world. These places became great settlements that encouraged scholarship as well as piety. The abbey women, along with their male counterparts, copied and recopied the studious works of the day as well as the rare literature of the past, maintaining them for Western posterity. Many of the women were illustrators as well as copiers of manuscripts. These illuminations on the manuscripts were things of outstanding beauty.

By joining one of these great settlements women could be free of the intellectual restrictions put on their sex by the secular world. From the 7th to the 11th centuries abbesses held the same power as their male counterparts, in both the secular as well as the religious realm. The larger religious settlements usually owned the surrounding lands as well as actual convent buildings. The abbesses had the right to attend ecclesiastical synods and assist in the deliberations of national assemblies. Some even had the right to coin money and raise armies. To put this into 21st century terms, the career opportunities for some women during this time were perhaps greater than they are today. A bold statement, but worth considering.

This illumination is adapted from Hildegardis Bingensis. Liber Divinorvm Opervm. Ed. A. Derolez and Peter Dronke. Turnout: Brepols, 1996.

Often the convents and abbeys would conduct schools to which privileged children, both female and male, came. Literacy in these days meant reading and writing in Latin and sometimes Greek and Hebrew. Ida (c. 570 CE) of Ireland founded a community of nuns who taught a school for small boys including the future missionary, St. Brendan, also known as Brendan the Voyager. Abbess Aelfthrith (c. 694 CE) built Repton in Derbyshire, England into a center for education. Abbess Hilda (616 – 680 CE) made Whitby, England, a settlement of men and women, into a center of learning. As chief educator she taught theology, grammar, music, the arts, and medicine. During the 7th and 8th centuries there were over thirty English abbesses who ran monasteries. An English nun, Leoba (died 779 CE), because of her learned reputation, was sought out by other church leaders for advice. Around 733 CE, her cousin Boniface asked her to help him in his church building efforts in Germany. She agreed and was appointed abbess at Bishofscheim in Germany. For forty years she taught the young nuns there and was sought by many for her wisdom and knowledge. She was friend and counselor to Hildegard, the wife of Charlemagne. Women’s contributions lasted for over eight hundred years. Around 1290 CE Claranna von Hohenburg, a Swiss nun, was said to be advanced in scientific knowledge.

One woman, Hrotsvit of Gandersheim (c. 930 – c. 990 CE) in Saxony wrote verse, history, and the only dramas composed in Europe from the 4th to the 11th centuries. She was allowed her own court, the right to coin money, and to sit at meetings of the Diet – the ruling body. She is usually known by the Saxon equivalent of her self-styled pen name, Hroswitha: hroth meaning ‘sound’ and swith meaning ‘loud’ or ‘strong’ – she who makes a strong sound.

Towards the end of the Dark Ages the Islamic world surpassed the Western world in its access to technical literature. One can easily find information about male Islamic mathematicians and scholars. I know of no technical Islamic women from those times. There may be, indeed, many women to include, but I have no information on them.

The Dark Ages gave way to the Middle Ages as social structures swirled about, settling into new patterns. Feudal Europe became a centuries old war-torn land as rulers continued to fight over boundaries and land rights. At the same time, Europeans attempted to retake control of Jerusalem. The crusades to Palestine forced open cultural doors long closed. Genghis Khan (1155 – 1227 CE) united the Mongols and swept across the steppes and destroyed ancient centers of civilization in eastern Europe. Less than a century later, Marco Polo (1254 – 1354 CE) reached China continuing to open cultural doors.

Women continued to contribute their scholarship despite the shifting sands beneath their feet. Herrad of Landsberg (1125 – 1195 CE) was abbess of the convent of Ste Odile in Hohenbourg and compiler-illuminator of the Hortus Deliciarum (The Garden of Delights). This large folio consisted of 324 pages and 636 miniature illustrations that depicted biblical scenes and allegorical figures. In it there are over a thousand texts by different authors on different subjects including poems by Herrad herself – a compendium of medieval learning of the knowledge and history of the world intended for the women in her convent. This encyclopedic work covered biblical, moral and theological material.

The seven liberal arts adapted from the Hortus Deliciarum.

One truly shining light stands out from the rest – that of Hildegard of Bingen-am-Rhein (1098 – 1179 CE). One of our rare true geniuses, she was a mystic who wrote volumes of text, composed music, painted, and ran her convent. A web search on her name will turn up over a million hits.

She was sent to the convent as a young child. While there she wrote in her journal speaking of her nurse

“This wonderful woman who had guided me in observing the range of positions of the rising and setting Sun, who had had me mark with a crayon on a wall the time and place where the warming sunlight first appeared in the morning and finally disappeared each and every day of my eleventh year.”

This is the mark of the true scientist.

Her first visionary work was Scivias ("Know the Ways of the Lord"). She wrote the music and play Ordo Virtutum (Play of Virtues). She also wrote Liber vitae meritorum (1150 – 63 CE) (Book of Life's Merits) and Liber divinorum operum (1163 CE) (Book of Divine Works).. She also authored Physica and Causae et Curae (1150 CE), both works on natural history and curative powers of various natural objects, which are together known as Liber subtilatum (The book of subtleties of the Diverse Nature of Things). Physica was actually nine books treating minerals, plants, fishes, birds, insects, and quadrupeds. The book on plants has no fewer than two hundred and thirty chapters. Kass-Simon and Farnes have an excellent description of her natural history work in their book Women of Science Righting the Record .

Her music has been recorded on several CDs. She wrote eerily beautiful Gregorian chants, some so enthralling that it is said that people would faint upon hearing her music. She expanded plainchant (a unison chant, originally unaccompanied) a bit beyond the basic intricacies of Gregorian Chant even though she had no formal music training.

She is honored by nurses as the founder of holistic medicine, and delightfully mixed a wonderful common sense with her healing. Here is her recipe for spice cookies (modernized).

“Eat them often,” she says, “and they will calm every bitterness of heart and mind - and your hearing and senses will open. Your mind will be joyous, and your senses purified, and harmful humours will diminish.”

3/4 cup butter or margarine (1 1/2 sticks), 1 cup brown sugar, 1 egg, 1 tsp baking powder, 1/4 tsp salt, 1 1/2 cups flour, 1 tsp ground cinnamon, 1 tsp ground nutmeg, 1/2 tsp ground cloves. Mix, form walnut sized balls, and bake for 10-15 minutes.

She wrote that

“The stars gravitate around the Sun just as the Earth attracts the creatures which inhabit it”

This is the concept of universal gravitation as we know it now, long before it became a standard part of mathematics (five hundred years later by Sir Isaac Newton). She also wrote

“If it is cold in winter time on the part of the Earth which we inhabit, then the other part must be warm, in order that the temperature of the Earth may always be in equilibrium”

adapted from Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia Harmonie Celestium Revelationum, published in modern facsimile by Alamire, POB 45, 3990 Peer, Belgium

This shows a remarkable sense of the synergy of the Earth. Today we call this point of view thermodynamics. And forecasting Harvey’s theory of blood movement through the body as well as the concept of universal gravitation she wrote:

“Stars are not immovable but transverse the universe in a manner similar to blood moving through the body.”

My favorite quote is about her belief in the healing power of gems.

“A precious gem will heal the body if taken to bed. And a diamond held in the mouth of a liar or scold would cure any spiritual defects.”

Definitely something worth following up.

Hildegard was a special woman, talented in many, many fields. She corresponded widely with the learned men and women of the day and was highly sought after for advice. She was brave in her writings. There is a letter from her to Pope Anastasius IV that begins

“So it is, O man, that you who sit in the chief seat of the Lord, hold him in contempt when you embrace evil …”

She was one of the shining lights of the early Middle Ages. Her books were instant “bestsellers”.

Another of her beautiful illuminations is shown above.

During this time Italy continued its unique tradition of allowing women in the university. In 1236 CE Bettina Gozzadini was appointed to the Chair of Law at the University of Bologna. A century later Novella d’Andrea frequently substituted for her father, a professor of law at the same university. But more about Italy later.

As we move forward in time we find a few women who worked in traditional male occupations. Fya upper Bach was a 14th century blacksmith in Siberg, Germany. Twice in her career she held office in the local blacksmiths’ guild. Mary Sidney Herbert (1561 – 1621 CE), Countess of Pembroke, was quite a learned lady. She was known for her chemistry as well as her poems. One of the leading male chemists of the day – Adrian Gilbert – called her a chemist of note. Women were inventors too. Isabella Cunio (13th century CE) may have been the co-inventor with her brother of woodblock engraving.

It is extremely difficult to find names from the far East and India during this time. Did women of scholarship exist? I think so, but their names are deep in untranslated documents. Two names only have I found. One is the daughter of the Indian mathematician Bhasharacharya (1114 – 1185 CE). He did many important things in astronomy and mathematics including resolving a problem with the number zero. He was the first to note that division by zero did not give zero; it resulted in infinity. He wrote several texts on math, one of which he named after his daughter Leelavati (“Beautiful”). The book was used to teach her algebra. She was also an excellent mathematician. In 1816 this book was translated into English. The other is Raziya. Shortly after Leelavati lived, Raziya became the first Muslim lady to rule a Moslem state – she was Sultana of Delhi in 1236 CE and very well educated.

I shall end this chapter with a note about a woman who was not a scientist but was perhaps the first woman in Europe to earn her living through her writing – Christian de Pisan (1363 – 1429 CE) . Widowed at twenty-five with a large family to support she took the bold step of going her own way. She wrote at least twelve books and ten works in verse, including what is perhaps the first history of women in the European world – The Book of the City of Ladies. This is a fascinating book that combines legend with reality in a sweeping allegory of a city of ladies. Her works are still studied today. I found a tidbit in this book that continues to enchant me. It is a puzzling statement about the education of women.

“God has given them such beautiful minds to apply themselves, if they want to, in any of the fields where glorious and excellent men are active, which are neither more nor less accessible to them as compared to men if they wished to study them, and they can thereby acquire a lasting name…”

Did she mean that women had the same opportunities as men in the 14th century? I don’t know. It is fascinating to speculate. Nonetheless it is always true that most women and men were scrabbling for mere existence in these centuries.

The times leading to the Renaissance were times of extreme change in social customs. The black death decimated whole towns bringing cultural change with it because the plague upset the social order (especially in the 14th century, see next chapter). It was a struggle just to survive for the vast majority of people. Slowly, the Roman Catholic Church solidified its beliefs, and over time the stultifying religious view of women’s inferiority overcame the freeing winds of the convent. The Christian church consolidated its power becoming the major claimant in most peoples’ lives. Church fathers wrote polemics against women, especially women scholars. The great convents were destroyed or shut down. The profits of centuries of learning and effort were snatched away. Men shut down the convents, destroyed the manuscripts, took the money and lands and created new universities on the ashes. The great witchcraft mania began, not to end until the 18th century. Until the 14th century men and women of the feudal nobility received approximately the same elementary education. With the rise of the university system in Europe that custom declined. Where religion once supported women in scholarship, it now denied them access. One had to be a member of the clergy to attend the university, and women were denied that right.

Despite Christian de Pisan’s statement that women have such beautiful minds, rights for women declined with one large exception. Let us travel a bit further along in time.

Monday, October 10, 2005

chapter 1


"What I have done here no one has done before"

In 400 CE in Alexandria, Egypt there existed one of the world’s rare treasures: the Great Library, founded by Ptolemy II (285-246 BCE) of Egypt. It was the center of scholarship for the entire Mediterranean world. Scholars from the entire area came there to study and to teach. The library grew in size and reputation through the gathering of the literary works until it became the collective brain of the Mediterranean. This was often rigorously enforced by the taking of books from ships as they docked in the harbor and delivering them to the Library. The best minds came there to study medicine, biology, astronomy, mathematics, literature, and geography. Typically, scholars could only bring texts into the Library. They could not remove the books themselves, only copies. Tradition says it held upwards of half a million texts. Thus the Library grew in reputation and scholarship through the centuries. The original texts of most of the Mediterranean world’s literature were held there. A citizen of Alexandria was not only a citizen of a great city but also a citizen of the known world. The Library was eventually destroyed, not once but many times. Many philosophers and teachers worked there, including the philosopher/mathematician Hypatia (c. 355 – 415 CE), pronounced Hip-ah-ti’-a. When she was 19 years old a mob of Christians tried to destroy it. But it survived a little longer before its final destruction, ending a glorious tradition of scholarship.

We are on a search for scientists. A scientist is someone who studies the natural world, how it operates, moves and changes. It actually comes from a Latin word, scientia . Hypatia, though, would call herself a natural philosopher not a scientist. The word ‘scientist’ was coined apparently in 1840 CE by the British Association for the Advancement of Science.

Hypatia was not the earliest woman of science, technology and invention. We shall meet that lady a bit later. Hypatia is, perhaps, one of the more well known which is why I start with her. She lived and taught at the Great Library. During the time of Hypatia it was still a center of scholarship but soon it was to be destroyed completely.

Hypatia was an astronomer, mathematician, philosopher, and head of the school of neo-Platonic philosophy, an amazing suite of talents for anyone. She wrote at least three ‘books’, none of which survive: a treatise on the Conics of Apollonius, a Commentary on the Arithmetic of Deophantus, and an Astronomical Canon. The first two were expositions of rather difficult mathematics, the third probably an exposition of planetary positions. It may be that a fourth commentary of hers did survive – her commentary on Ptolemy’s Handy Table , although this is uncertain. She designed many tools of her trade including an astrolabe, a planisphere, and a method for distilling water. She corresponded with people all over the Mediterranean and letters addressed to “the Philosopher” were delivered to her. We know a little about her from her letters sent to others. It may be that she studied for awhile in Athens at the neo-Platonic school conducted by Plutarch the Younger and his daughter Asclepigenia, although this is speculation. As the leading philosopher in the city, officials who assumed public responsibility would call upon her. Everyone who wanted to study philosophy flocked to her from all directions. Much was made of her beauty and eloquence. She wore the modest tribon — a coarse workaday garment worn by the poor, ascetics, and philosophers.

“All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting person as final.”

“Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after years relieved of them. In fact men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you cannot get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”

These are quotes from her. These words and others led to her eventual downfall. In her time Alexandria was controlled by Rome. The growing Christian church was consolidating its power and wanted to eradicate pagan influence. Hypatia stood at the center of the grave forces warring in Alexandria, and her words sparked the anger of the Bishop of the city – Cyril. Tradition tells us that a mob dragged her from her chariot one day and armed with broken bits of pottery peeled her skin from her bones, scattering them to the winds and then burning her body.

A tragic ending for a brilliant woman. Did her sacrifice end such persecution of women who dared to think? While her death occurred some 1500 years ago, I must note that meteorologist Dr. Ginous Mahmoudi was executed by firing squad on December 17th 1981 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard for expressing her minority faith and being a woman of science.

Despite the dangers there were, and still are, many women who try the noble calling of science. Are you surprised? Even in the 21st century there are those who think women and science are not suited for each other. There are people who claim that the brains of women are not suited for mathematics. The current president of one our leading universities said that innate differences in sex may explain why there are so few women in science and mathematics.

Well, are there so few women of scholarship?

The answer is a resounding no! There are many, many thousands. I am one of them. But the women are mostly missing from the record. If we look in the history books we rarely find them. When asked to name a woman of science, the typical person can think of only one – Marie Curie. Dr. Gerda Lerner said in her address as the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians .

"…All women have in common that their history comes to them refracted through the lens of men’s observations and refracted again through a male-centered value system…. From that time on [the beginning of written history] women were educationally deprived and did not significantly participate in the creation of the symbol system by which the world was explained and ordered. Women did not name themselves; they did not, after the Neolithic era, name gods or shape them in their image…. If the bringing of women - half the human race - into the center of historical inquiry poses a formidable challenge to historical scholarship, it also offers sustaining energy and a source of strength."

Women hold up half the sky. They are half the human race. Yet, although things are improving, the notion that technical excellence is ‘not for girls’ (or minorities) persists. It is vital that we know what women have done, how they have contributed. We need to get them back into the history books, back into the center of inquiry, so we can draw on their strength as much as we draw upon the other half of the human race – the males.

Science and technology are innately diverse. The results of science have no gender. We need role models that highlight and celebrate this diversity. When the role models are plentiful (as they are) then that university president will know better than to state that innate differences in sex limit women in science and technology.

We all know that natural philosophy is an adventure, a trip that uncovers beauty everywhere with every new thing understood. Everyone deserves to share in this excitement and personal fulfillment. The results of science have no gender.

That is worth repeating. The results of science have no gender. We cannot back out of some invention, theory, or solution whether the originator was female or male.

Given that the results of science have no gender, what are the attributes of these scientists?

The attributes of the scientist are intelligence (the ability to combine information quickly, organize thoughts and coordinate actions to achieve results), doubt (the ability to question), luck (the ability to take quick advantage of an opportunity), sweat (the ability to work hard), and courage (the ability to maintain a clarity of thought despite opposition). Women have courage aplenty. Women share the common intelligence of humanity. They are superlative doubters. The sweat of their bodies waters all the monuments of the world. Many have shared luck with their male brethren. We need to celebrate these women along with the men and raise them all to be heroes.

Scientists have those attributes in common with each other. They share the attributes of intelligence, doubt, luck, sweat, and courage. The scientist often is in the right place at the right time; i.e., is lucky. The scientist absorbs as much education as possible. It is the education that provides the grist for the mind to use any luck it encounters. The scientist has a nimble and adaptable mind, well-equipped to doubt. And finally, a scientist works hard - very, very hard. Most of the effort is repetitive. The excitement is exquisite and rare, and when it comes, it is the deepest joy and greatest wonder - all the labor is worth those few ecstatic moments. When I first discover something, even a tiny something, it is the most exciting thing there is. Both women and men share these attributes. There is no gender lurking in this definition. None.

Understanding science will only strengthen our life, our work and our world. We want solutions to our problems. Solutions come from questions, research, thought and technology. For as long as we have been human we have developed and thought about science. For as long as we have been human we have looked forward to the next challenge, the next goal, and the next creative thought.

What makes us human? Many things do, and one of them is our ability to affect and predict our environment. I call this science - the definition of structure for our world - technology - the use of structure in our world - and mathematics - the common language of structure - science, technology, and mathematics, all have been part of our human progress, through every step of our path to the present. Women and men together have researched and solved each emerging need. Women and men together have defined the advancing path of this fundamental human activity. Women and men together have eased the burden for all of us. Women and men together have sought out this great joy – to be the first to see something new in the world. That excitement reaches the deepest part of our souls. To think is just about the greatest ‘turn-on’ that exists. It is irresistibly compelling.

Hypatia herself said:

“Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all”.

That explains how important this search for women of science is. Where do we start?

We start with the world’s earliest literature. The name of an appropriate woman appears in some of world's earliest literature - over 4,000 years ago . Science has been the business of women ever since then. Certainly, though, women were questioners and thinkers long before that. Most myths, religions, and history place the beginnings of agriculture, laws, civilization, mathematics, calendars, time keeping and medicine into the hands of women. And the mythology is so very rich. The stories form our common wealth. But whether it was the Goddess of Wisdom or War or Love she was lost to the historical record yet kept strong in the dreams and myths of all peoples.

The Western world owes much of its world view to a thick thread of scholarship that goes back to ancient Greece and earlier. Women belong in that thread. However, filtered through modern eyes, it is still an open question whether women held high social status in that ancient world. We just don’t know. The poet Hesiod (7th century BCE) in his genealogy of the gods tells of the generations of gods first predominately female and then predominately male. Other scarce records of the Near East put female gods at the head of a complicated religious pantheon. It is tempting to assume that the earliest Near Eastern religions, because the main gods were female, reflect a high status for women. It is convenient conclusion but it represents only circumstantial evidence and is not proved. We have no historical records that clearly state the superior status of women. There are just a few things that hint at this. One example is the predominance of female figurines from the Neolithic era. Another is that females dominate in Minoan art. The figure to the left is a statue of the Minoan Snake Goddess. The historical records are scanty and inferential at best. Eventually, though, the early Semite tribes wiped out the female dominated religions of the Near East replacing them with a variety of male gods. By the time writing was common (around 3,000 BCE) the social structures were male dominated, with a few notable exceptions.

One such exception was in and around the Near East, in Sumer (in the lower flood plain of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers or Mesopotamia – Greek for ‘the land between the rivers’ – modern day Iraq). While Egypt united under one pharaoh, and settlers from Mexico migrated to the Caribbean islands in dug out canoes, and western European farmers constructed large, stone chamber tombs, the earliest civilization developed in the lands around and between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers which flow southeast into the Persian Gulf. The earliest city-states developed on the fertile Mesopotamian Plain. By 3500 BCE Uruk was probably the first city-state. It covered over 1,000 acres in Sumer. These early urban settlements built around the central temple complex (later known as ziggurats) managed by a suite of priestesses and priests.

Mesopotamian traders and accountants invented a writing system. The Sumerians developed writing with cuneiform, a way of arranging impressions stamped on clay by the wedge-like section of a chopped-off reed. Eventually the signs stamped onto the clay became more than mere pictographs. They stood for syllables and sounds. Our modern form of writing comes to us from these early forms. The Egyptians also invented writing using pictographs or hieroglyphs. The Egyptian form of writing, although resulting in a rich literature, did not develop into the alphabet type writing we use today.

The Sumerians used writing primarily as a form of record keeping. The most common cuneiform tablets record transactions of daily life: tallies of cattle, sheep, and goats kept by herdsmen for their owners, production figures, lists of taxes, accounts, and contracts. But there are tablets of letters and poetry as well. Each letter came encased in a slightly larger baked clay closed container, just as we use envelopes today. Another category of cuneiform writing includes a large number of basic texts which were used to teach future generations of scribes. By 2500 BCE there were schools built just for this purpose. There were female scribes as well as male scribes. Cuneiform tablets are not large; they are typically less than 25 centimeters on a side.

The people poured considerable wealth into the construction of clay brick temples and the residences of priests and priestesses who attended to the needs of the gods. The giant temple complexes were centers of economic as well as religious activity. Farmers would bring their produce to the priests and priestesses at the temple who would use enough of the produce to care for the gods and then redistribute it to the people of the city.

The great temples were centers of scholarly activity as well. The priestesses and priests controlled the vast set of astronomical observatories spread across the land to observe the stars and planets (mainly for calendar keeping). Our modern day astronomy can trace its roots back to ancient Sumer. For example, the number sixty, sacred to the god An, was their basic unit of calculation. Sixty minutes to the hour and 360 degrees in a circle were Sumerian concepts. Agricultural advances were based on astronomical advances. The priestesses and priests would tell the people when to plant crops, would predict lunar eclipses, make sundials, and provide calendars. The calendar they developed is still used in a modernized form to date certain religious events like Passover and Easter. All this activity depended upon the systematic astronomical observations made in the network of observatories around Sumer. The highly developed agricultural system and the refined irrigation and water-control systems that enabled Sumer to achieve surplus production also led to the growth of large cities.

So we have our exception. The high status of the chief (or en-) priestess was clear. She dominated the religious, scholarly, and commercial worlds, all of which came together in the temple complex that defined the city. In Babylonia, Sumer, and Akkad and their nearby cities the en-priestess was the center figure of the great commercial and scholarly expanses that stretched through the area. The kingly authority was sanctified by her presence.

Another important Sumerian legacy is its literature. The most famous Sumerian epic, and the one that has survived in the most nearly complete form is the epic of Gilgamesh. The story of Gilgamesh, who actually was king of the city-state of Uruk in approximately 2700 BCE, is a moving story of the ruler's deep sorrow at the death of his friend and of his consequent search for immortality. We do not know who wrote that great epic. The first poems whose author we do know are the great poems of En’Hedu’anna, the en- priestess of the city of Ur. three long poems to Inanna, three poems to Nanna, and forty-two temple hymns still found in translation today. She was the daughter of Sargon of Akkad (2334-2290 BCE) who first established this leading position of the en-priestess. There are now excellent web sites describing her.

Sargon was the world's first empire-builder, sending his troops as far as Egypt and Ethiopia. He attempted to establish a unified empire of Sumer and Akkad and to end the hostilities among the city-states. Sargon’s rule introduced a new level of political organization that was characterized by an even more clear-cut separation between religious authority and secular authority. To ensure his supremacy, Sargon created the first conscripted army, a development related to the need to mobilize large numbers of laborers for irrigation and flood-control works. Akkadian strength was boosted by the invention of the composite bow, a new weapon made of strips of wood and horn.

We have our first name, that of En’Hedu’anna (2300 BCE). The tradition of women in science and technology begins. “Hedu’anna” means ornament of heaven, the name given to her when she was installed as en-priestess. We do not know her birth name. She was the chief astronomer-priestess and as such managed the great temple complex of her city of Ur. Although we do not have technical works from her we know that she was a learned, diversely talented woman of power. And we have her poems. We also have an alabaster disk that shows her in a religious procession.

She is shown in full religious regalia, the third person from the right. Our first woman of power and scholarship whose name we know, and the last in a long line of unknown powerful women of the past who followed the stars and the cycles of the Moon. Courtesy of the University Museum, Philadelphia.

It would be easy to say that En’Hedu’anna was unique. But she was not.

There were many such en-priestesses, each a powerful woman who controlled commerce and study. In fact legend claims that Queen Semiramis is the inventor of canals and bridges over rivers and the first to build a tunnel under a river – the Euphrates – to found the city of Babylon. The legend is probably based on Sammeramet who acted as regent of Assyria from 810 – 805 BCE. There are also known poets from this part of the world. Inib-sari (c. 1790 – 1745 BCE) and Eristi-Aya (c. 1790 – 1745 BCE) lived in Akkadia. They were two daughters of king Zimri-Lin.

About the same time across the world, on the eastern side of Asia, legend tells us that the first empress of China – Si-Ling Chi (c. 2640 BCE) discovered the secret of silk weaving by watching silkworms at work in her garden. She discovered how to unwind the silk from the cocoon and weave it into a garment, and so she founded the silk industry in China. Yao, wife of the fourth emperor, invented spinning. Unfortunately I do not know much about the names of famous women, technical or otherwise, of the past in China. The Chinese were great inventors and had many advances available to them long before they were known in the Europe. Things like the iron plow (6th century BCE) and efficient horse harnesses (4th century BCE) were known in China long before they came to the Europe. But the names of inventors were seldom recorded. They did record the names of poets and astronomers. Interestingly, the Chinese knew that the Sun had sunspots by the 4th century BCE – long before Galileo saw them through his telescope. The names of the historical astronomers, though, are all male. We do know that the Empress Shi-Dun (c. 105 CE) with her eunuch Cai-Lun first invented a method for making paper from mulberry tree bark. Many women of China were poets (which means they were literate). Pan Chao (50 – 112 CE) or Ban Zhao was an imperial scholar. She was an official court historian, administered the imperial library, and taught. One of her most famous works is “lessons for a woman”.

Wandering to India I find Gargi, daughter of Vachaknavi, (1500 BCE), honored as a philosopher in the ancient Sanskrit literature, the Upanishads . Upanishad means the inner or mystic teaching. They were written by the sages of India between the 8th and 4th centuries BCE. Maritrayee was similarly honored in later Hindu writings, although one ought not to assume from this that women held high positions in India. Another learned lady was Khana of India, assumed to live in between 800 – 1200 BCE. Her history is mostly legend, but it is said that her knowledge of astronomy was better than her astronomer husband’s. And coming back again to Babylon, Tappeti-Belatikallim (c. 1200 BCE) was known as an alchemist who worked with perfume production.

Tradition, as deduced from tomb paintings (7th – 5th centuries BCE), indicated that Etruscan women enjoyed an autonomy rare in the ancient world. It is fascinating to speculate what we might learn if we had documents from that period. In fact the tomb paintings show that the mirrors used by the women had inscriptions on them, thus implying that the women were literate.

And, of course, we started in Alexandria, Egypt. There were women of power and leadership in Egypt even earlier than En’Hedu’anna in Sumer. Around 3,000 BCE there was an Egyptian queen Meryet-nit who ruled during the First Dynasty of the united Upper and Lower Egypt. Many women influenced the pharaoh even to the point of assuming leadership roles. For example, Hetepheres II (c. 2510 BCE) became Controller of the Affairs of the Kiltwearers, which meant she ran the civil service, as well as overseers, governors, and judges. Around 1878 BCE Aganice of ancient Egypt ruled as consort (daughter or sister) of the Pharaoh Sesotris and supposedly was able to predict the planetary positions (which using hieroglyphs is a neat trick). The Egyptian queen Hatshepsut (c. 1500 BCE) was also known as a physician. There was Berenice who governed Egypt (246 – 241 BCE) when her husband was away. She was honored by her court astronomer Colon who identified one of the constellations as a lock of her hair. That constellation is still known as Coma Berenices. One of her descendents was Cleopatra, today known for her beauty, but in her time known for her diverse talents and intelligence.

And let us not forget Mary the Jewess in the first century CE also in Alexandria. She discovered the formula for hydrochloric acid. She invented many tools for handling chemicals, one of which is still known today as the ban marie – the water bath (the double boiler), Marianbad in German. It is also the prototype for the modern autoclave. She also invented a still called the tribikos, which may have been the first device for distillation. Once, while experimenting with sulfur vapor, she synthesized a metal alloy coated with black sulfide, a compound still known as Mary’s Black.

There was also Beruryah of the 2nd century CE cited for her scholarship in the Talmud.

I have not given many names, but enough to excite us on the search, and there are few technical male names from these periods as well.

Were women in general held in high regard in all these civilizations? As I mentioned earlier probably not, although I do not really know.

In general, very few people were literate, so one finds few men as well, and I suspect that the scholarly women were the lucky ones who had access to study and freedom from the drudgery of the general wifely state completely occupied with the skills of housekeeping. Access to scholars and information has always depended upon gender, location, birth and luck. If one was born to a secure family then one might learn to read, write and cipher. Men have the advantage here. Therefore, if a woman was literate and numerate, she was likely to have links to a tutor, a benevolent father, husband or brother who was willing to share knowledge. Literacy was a privilege for both men and women, but especially for women. Perhaps, though, she lived during a time when women had the great convent schools of England, France and Germany open to them . There will be more on that later.

Regardless, the overwhelmingly vast majority of people, both male and female, had no access at all. They labored for their very food and shelter. The freedom to specialize in scholarship rarely put food onto the table. This freedom springs from the human need to dream a future. Those who are freed to dream are freed by the willing labor of the rest.

One of the greatest strengths of our species is its recognition that scholarship is worthy, is important, is valuable, and necessary. The right to question must be sacrosanct. These women existed and were honored, even though their numbers are few. It would be wrong to assume that women held no positions of power just because I have so few listed. These wonderful women existed and form that thread of scholarship and invention that runs strong through history.

To bring these women out of obscurity and put them into the center of history and science is my goal. I have to look just about everywhere. That is clear from the few examples I do have. Scholarship is the key word, not science. The word ‘scientist’ is rather new, as I said before; now it means someone with a Doctorate in Philosophy, a PhD, who works in a technical field. This person has studied a narrowly defined field of research, and often is well trained only in that field.

But that definition is not broad enough. We need to include toolmakers, inventors, physicians, nurses, and natural philosophers. The “natural philosophers” are those whose endeavors typically cover the classic seven liberal arts ¾ grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. So we look for our women in all fields of endeavor. We need to look outside of schools, because schools did not always exist, and because women could rarely take advantage of those schools that did exist. When schools did not train scientists, learned people were either self-taught or privately taught.

To find these scholars I look for those holders of scholarly degrees from schools, yes, and also for poets and authors, architects and gardeners; I look in industry, in school lists, in textbooks, letters, and stories. The names of scholars may be deduced out of their poems, music, and writings. A literate person perforce meant a numerate person . So to track this, one needs to look at inventors and toolmakers as well as scholars.

Two sciences, however, stayed intact as far back as one wishes to go ¾ astronomy and mathematics. They represent the mainstream of pure science, and they, therefore, provide an especially rich source of names. Before humanity invented writing, we find astronomical based calendar stones and engravings. There are stones, lists, carvings, pictographs and bones for clues . Since astronomy and mathematics were the earliest scholarly arts, names from the history of astronomy and mathematics are easier to find than names from other areas. Astronomy and mathematics marched together through the centuries, not really breaking apart until the end of the 19th century. Historical records tend to record the work of the mathematician/astronomer because of its great practical importance.

Other sciences come from differing sources. For example, the chemists of the 21st century were once called alchemists, and they count as scientists. The names of these women appear in a wonderfully diverse set of places. Women are botanists, engineers, physicians, chemists, mathematicians, inventors, explorers, astronomers, agronomists, biologists, physicists, anthropologists, architects, archeologists – a grand list of scientific disciplines … as well as poets, artists, musicians, writers, singers, mothers, lawyers, activists, laborers, farmers, leaders, fighters. I concentrate here on the first part of the list not the second part. It is much easier to find information about the women in the second part. History easily records the warrior, the politician, and the poet.

There is one field where women always participated - health care. We cannot forget that much of what we call medicine and midwifery is and always has been the province of women. Midwifery was almost exclusively run by women until the 18th century when men usurped the lead away from this traditional women’s task. Unfortunately, history rarely records their names. Perhaps that is because women have always been physicians so they were too common to name. One of the earliest written names of a woman who was a physician is Merit Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), a name from 4800 years ago! Her image is on a tomb in the Valley of Kings in Egypt. She was described by her son, the high priest, as “the chief physician”. The participation of women in surgery began before that – over 5,000 years ago – when surgical instruments of flint and bronze were placed in the grave of Queen Shubad of Ur, ostensibly so that she might practice surgery in the afterlife . Lost in myth is Agande (12th century BCE) who Homer tells us was knowledgeable in the medicinal value of plants. The Greek Agnodice (4th century BCE) was a physician who was brought to trial for acting as a physician. The result of her trial was that the medical profession was legalized for all the free-born women of Athens. There was a nurse much honored by ancient Rome for her skill in healing and gynecology: Acca Laurentia (634 BCE). And six hundred years later women were still known for their healing skills. Ancient Rome had her own physicians – women like Victoria and Leoparda. Artemisia II (died 350 BCE), queen of Caria (the southwest of what is now called Turkey) is famed as a botanist and medical researcher. There are several physicians and midwives from the 1st century BCE Greece: Sotira was a Greek physician; Salpe was a well-known Greek midwife as was Olympias of Thebes and Metrodora. A manuscript by Metrodora exists in Florence. Laïs is yet another physician in Greece. One woman, Panthia, received a tribute from her husband, Glycon (2nd century CE). He was a physician and honored his wife as “not behind me in skill”. Fabiola (died 399 CE) was a Christian follower of St. Jerome who also practiced medicine.

Well, women have always been healers. What about the others?

Do we look for someone who changed the world? Did every scientist change the world? No. Do we look for just those few geniuses who changed the way the world thinks? We can easily remember the few people, both male and female, that produced something with a value that lives through centuries. These are the paradigm shifters - the rare true genius, people like Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. These two men defined the basic rules for the structure of our world. But they lived centuries apart from each other, one in the 17th century and one in the 20th century, thus indicating how rare such genius is.

Then there are those people, far, far greater in number than the paradigm shifters, who still produced something of value for their time and place, and possibly for many times and places. These people are much more difficult to find, and they are important. They provide the basis upon which the rare genius can build a new paradigm. As Sir Isaac Newton said “If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I stood on the shoulders of giants”. These women and men are important; they are special. They are the hidden giants.

I seek the hidden giants.

As I have already said, the information about the traditional role of women in science and technology is not easily available. There were books written about the history of science and scientists during the 20th century. A book on women in science written in 1913 lists over 350 technical women of the past. This book is an amazing tour de force combining romantic views of women with solid references to original sources. Asimov’s classic book , some 50 years later lists sixteen women. Patrick Moore's book Men of the Stars , a mere decade after Asimov’s book, has none. This is a disappointing trend. Certainly, however, the past decade has produced a large list of publications about technical women. The 20th century CE is covered rather well. But it is misleading to assume that women were not scholars before the 20th century CE just because their names are missing from the history texts. Their absence is involuntary - a result of how history was compiled. We all have just opened the treasure box. These women contributed much. They had the entire universe to play with, to study and to enjoy. They were not left out of this great human experience.

Let me concentrate in one place where we do have a few records – ancient Greece. By Homer’s time (7th century BCE) Greek women perhaps held a disadvantaged position but nonetheless were capable of ruling in their husbands’ absences. They were not considered inferior or incompetent. Homer and other poets tell stories of these strong women. In addition, although the Amazons are lost in legend and unproved to exist, many wrote of them. In fact Homer tells us in the Iliad that the Amazonian queen Penthesilea fought in the Trojan War (c. 1200 BCE) and was killed by Achilles. Legend records that she invented the battle-axe.

Times changed though. In general women were expected to keep silent, stay at home and become proficient in the needle and the loom. Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE, the great philosopher whose writings directed European thought for a thousand years) did not believe that women were educable. Athens (and eventually Western Europe) followed along Aristotle’s lines. Sparta, on the other hand still supported the education and development of women. History tells us the final outcome of these two great states. Sparta was eventually defeated by Athens. During this time the status of women in the Near and Middle East dropped significantly. Their legal rights eroded away to a shadow of what they had been. There are occasional records of women as poets, leaders and warriors, just as there are for men, but few of philosophy.

Nonetheless, despite the beliefs of Aristotle, some women managed to obtain access to scholars and scholarly pursuits. A very few valued names do exist. Perhaps surprisingly, the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427 – 347 BCE) wrote about women in his great work The Republic . In the perfect state, he wrote, women as well as men needed education – the same education. The philosopher Socrates (469 – 399 BCE) honored Diotama as one of his teachers. Plato taught two woman in his school: Lasthenia and Axiothea of Philus (c. 350 BCE).

Sappho became so well known as a poet that Plato proclaimed her the tenth Muse. She had many pupils in her island home where she ran a school of poetry and music. But we look for those who were philosophers as well as poets. Hipparchia, the wife of Crates (c. 470 BCE – founder of the comedic play), wrote a lovely sentiment – “I am much stronger than Atalanta from Maenalus because my wisdom is better than racing over the mountain ”, an early example of the epigram ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’.

Themista, the wife of Leon and a correspondent of Epicurus (371 – 271 BCE), was known as a philosopher in her own right; Themista was even called a sort of female Solon (Solon was “The Great Law-Giver” to ancient Athens). Perictione, a disciple of Pythagoras (c. 569 – c. 475 BCE), distinguished herself by her writings among which are Wisdom and The Harmony of Women. Themistocleia (6th century BC) was a Delphic priestess, the teacher and mentor of Pythagoras. Legend has it that Pythagoras admired Themistocleia to such an extent he kept his school open to women also. Whatever the reason, women did attend his school. After his death, the great school of Pythagoras was run by his daughter and his wife Theano. Theano not only worked in the areas of physics, medicine and child psychology, but was a great astronomer/mathematician in her own right. Her work on the theorem of the Golden Mean and the corresponding Golden Rectangle are considered to be her most important contributions. Her Life of Pythagoras is lost. Arate of Cyrene (5th century BCE) taught philosophy in a school in Attica. She was the daughter of Aristippus, the founder of the Cyenaic school of philosophy. Even in the time of Boccaccio (1313 – 1375 CE), 1,000 years later, she was still honored as a veritable prodigy of learning, writer of forty books, teacher of over 110 philosophers. Her epitaph

The splendor of Greece
The beauty of Helen
The virtue of Thirma
The pen of Aristippos
The soul of Socrates
and the tongue of Homer .

illustrates the high regard in which she was held.

These are but a few of the women of Greece who won renown for their scholarship. Many other women earned their way through the doorway of the hetaerae – the learned companions of men. Such a position does not exist now. These women were considered highly moral and virtuous, free, but unmarried. There were many such women who were respected scholars. Perhaps the most famous was Aspasia, the companion of the political leader Pericles (5th century BCE). Her house became a place of rest for many famous scholars and leaders of the day. Tradition has it that she was the teacher of Socrates in philosophy and politics and Pericles in rhetoric. Men brought their wives to her for instruction. Did she write some of the great speeches of Pericles? Maybe yes, maybe no. There is every reason to believe that she influenced Plato’s ideas on the equality of women.

Known as the witches of Thessaly (1st through 3rd centuries BCE), women such as Aglaonice, were thought to “draw down the Moon”. They knew how to predict lunar eclipses . The word “witch” is an epithet given them by later authors, although it is likely Aglaonice was regarded as a sorceress by her contemporaries for her skill in predicting eclipses. Her boasting gave rise to a Greek proverb used for braggarts “Yes as the Moon obeys Aglaonice”. A crater on the planet Venus is named for her.

Once small area of the world covering a mere century or so gives us so many names. The 5th and 6th centuries BCE are sometimes called the Axial Ages because so many influential people lived during this time span: Confucius and Lao Tzu in China, the Buddha in India, Mahavira (founder of Jainism) in India, and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in Greece. Then five hundred years later Jesus lived in Judea, and then six hundred years after that Mohammed lived.

“What I have done here no one has done before”, En’Hedu’anna said. These women are shining lights from our past. Let me step forward in time to shine that light on others.