Caroline Haslett: freed women from domestic drudgery

Today’s blog post tells of a pioneering woman of the 20th century whose feminism took a very practical form. Caroline Haslett was born in 1895 in Sussex, where her father was a railway engineer. She grew up preferring to play with machinery rather than dolls. A bad back kept her from attending school regularly, and as a result she was considered not strong enough to ever lead a normal life and was advised to leave school as it would be a waste of time. But she worked on strengthening her spine and not only finished school, but also attended secretarial college. In her teens, she became a suffragette. Her first job was as a secretary with the Cochran Boiler Company in London in 1914, just as war was breaking out in Europe. The shortage of men gave Caroline her chance to learn about the engineering side of the company and by 1918 she moved to Cochran’s Scotland site. In 1919 she took the job of secretary with the Women’s Engineering Society (WES), which had been founded to ensure that the opportunities provided by the war for women to enter traditionally male professions were not lost. Caroline worked tirelessly to break down the prejudices of employers towards women in the workplace, and to ensure that women gained access to courses at universities and engineering institutions that had previously been open only to men. The society also provided career advice.

But Caroline wanted to help all women, not just those seeking careers. In the early 1920s, few houses had electric light or heating, and domestic appliances were rare. As a child Caroline had been horrified by her mother’s daily routine, later saying: ‘… and so the work of the house went on: sweeping, scrubbing, polishing and dusting, all done by hand. No wonder Mother got tired.’ She realised that the grueling burden of housework was causing women to become ill. In 1922 Caroline surveyed women to find which appliances would be most useful to them. The most popular answer was a dishwasher followed by a vacuum cleaner. Her survey led to her proposing an organisation to educate women about the uses of electricity and how to use electrical appliances in the home. The WES weren’t supportive so instead Caroline co-founded the Electrical Association for Women (EAW). The organisation’s slogan was ‘emancipation from drudgery’. Caroline is quoted as saying: ‘We are coming to an age when the spiritual and higher state of life will have freer development, and this is only possible when women are liberated from soul-destroying drudgery … I want every woman to have leisure to acquaint herself more profoundly with the topics of the day.’ As well as giving women careers advice, the EAW campaigned for safety awareness courses, as well as producing magazines and books such as ‘The Electrical Handbook for Women’. Women learned how to wire a plug and visited power stations to see how electricity was produced.

Caroline traveled widely to promote her mission, meeting Albert Einstein and Henry Ford. In the process, she became well known and was featured in a 1920s newspaper article entitled “Miss All-Alone”. Her independent lifestyle, flat-sharing in London and doing her own electrical wiring, was practically unheard of at the time.

During the Second World War, Caroline was the only woman member on a committee that investigated the standards for electrical installations in post-war Britain and instigated changes to the designs of electrical plugs to make them safer. From then onwards, Caroline presided over many committees, including becoming the first woman to chair a government working party and the first female chair of the British Electricity Development Association. Caroline’s achievements were recognised when she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1947. She died 10 years later, and her dying wish was that she be cremated by electricity.


Jocelyn Bell Burnell – the astrophysicist who was overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

This week I’m returning to one of my favourite subjects, women in science. Jocelyn Bell Burnell made one of the most important astronomical discoveries of the 20th century but have you heard of her before? Me neither.

Jocelyn was born in 1943 in Lurgan, Northern Ireland and developed an interest in astronomy from her father’s books. After failing her eleven-plus she went to Lurgan College and, to her dismay, found that she was not permitted to study science – when the boys went to the science labs, the girls were taught domestic science. Keen to encourage her, her parents sent her to a Quaker boarding school in England, where she developed a talent for physics. After school, Jocelyn attended Glasgow University and there, too, suffered discrimination. Female physics students were a rarity in the early sixties and she entered a lecture room she would have to endure whistles and jeers from the male students.

After gaining a degree in physics, Jocelyn went on to Cambridge to work on her PhD, where she assisted her supervisor, Antony Hewish, in constructing a large radio telescope, a physically demanding tax that involved swinging a 20-pound sledgehammer. When it was completed, two years later, she was given the responsibility of operating the telescope. In pre-computer days, analyzing data from the telescope was arduous: chart recorders generated 96 feet of paper a day for 6 months, and all this had to be analyzed by hand. When Jocelyn first noticed curious signals, pulsing regularly at a rate of about one pulse per second, she showed Antony, who thought they must be man-made interference. It even crossed his mind that the signal may originate from alien life and dubbed the signal LGM-1, for ‘little green man’. However, Jocelyn eventually convinced Antony that the they came from an object that was moving around the sky with the stars, and thus discovered pulsars, rapidly spinning neutron stars that provided a significant step in the understanding of black holes.

Together with the rest of her research team, Jocelyn published her work in Nature journal under the name SJ Bell so at first no one realised her gender. Soon, this significant finding attracted the attention of world’s media, and Jocelyn and Antony gave many interviews. But while interviewers would ask Antony about the astrophysical significance of the findings, they asked Jocelyn personal questions about her boyfriends and even her vital statistics! Worse was to come. Despite the fact that Jocelyn had been the first to observe these stars, Antony Hewish and a fellow researcher, Martin Ryle, were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1974, while Jocelyn was overlooked. Fellow astronomers were outraged on her behalf, and dubbed it the ‘No Bell’ prize. But Jocelyn’s contribution has now been widely acknowledged and since then she’s received every prize in her field.

Jocelyn refused to become embittered by the oversight and continued to break new ground for women. She became the first president of the Institute of Physics, was made a dame in 2007, and is now visiting professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University, and president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Now 72, she still makes regular public appearances and encourages young women to study science.



Ingebord Rapoport – oldest recipient of a PhD

The three years I spent studying for a PhD were the toughest of my life. If, at the end of it, someone had told me that I couldn’t do the oral examination necessary to gain my degree, I’d have been devastated. But not only did this happen to Ingebord Rapoport, she also had to wait 77 years to gain her doctorate.

Ingebord Syllm was born in 1912 to Protestant German parents in Cameroon, a German colony at the time. She was raised in Hamburg and later studied medicine at the University of Hamburg. She passed the state examination as a physician in 1937 and the following year, at the age of 25, submitted her doctoral thesis on diphtheria, then a leading cause of death among children. Her professor praised her work and approved the submission, but she was not permitted to take her oral exam for ‘racial reasons’ – her mother had Jewish ancestry. Nazi officials marked her exam forms with a yellow stripe, which meant she was ineligible for academic advancement.

Ingebord escaped, alone and penniless, to the US, where she applied to forty-eight colleges to complete her medical studies. Only one, the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, accepted her. But at this point, her fortunes changed. She was offered a job in Cincinnati, where she met Austrian-Jewish physician Samuel Rapoport, and married him two years later. They had three children in quick succession, and both their careers flourished. Unfortunately their growing support for the Communist Party gained the attention of the Un-American Activities Committee and, once more, Ingebord was forced to flee. They moved first to Zurich then to East Germany, where Samuel founded a biochemical institute and Ingebord founded the first neonatology clinic in Germany, where, together with their children, they achieved considerable academic success. Ingebord was honoured for her work in reducing infant mortality.

Ingebord was happy in her work, and ultimately gained qualifications higher than a doctorate, but never forgot the injustice that had been inflicted on her. Last year, her son, by now a Harvard professor, told Ingebord’s story to the dean of the University of Hamburg, who pursued the story. The University of Hamburg’s legal department proposed an honorary degree but the dean felt this wasn’t an unsatisfactory solution and proposed she took an oral exam. By now, Ingebord’s eyesight was too poor to enable her to read or use a computer so she instructed friends to search online for advances in diphtheria in the last seven decades and report them to her over the phone. Earlier this year, the dean and two other professors grilled the 102 year-old women in her living room for 45 minutes, describing her performance as brilliant, before granting her the PhD that was rightfully hers. In her acceptance speech, she stated that she’d gone to the effort of getting the degree for all of those who suffered from injustice during the Third Reich.

Elsie Widdowson – genius of nutrition

This week I’m back on my favourite theme of women in science, and my subject was responsible for the healthiest diet the British population ever had. Elsie May Widdowson was born in London in 1906 and gained a BSc in chemistry at Imperial College, London, in just two years. After graduating, she worked on a doctoral thesis on the chemistry of ripening and stored fruit, where she met Professor Robert McCance. She’d realised that some figures McCance had published were incorrect, and told him so. He was so impressed by her knowledge that he asked her to work with him and so began a scientific partnership lasting 60 years until McCance’s death in 1993.

Their work on tables showing the chemical composition of foodstuffs in the British diet was published in 1940. ‘The Composition of Food’ work, generally known as ‘McCance and Widdowson’, is a bible to anyone who has ever worked in food and nutrition, and formed the basis of modern nutritional thinking.

Following the outbreak of the Second World War, the pair headed the campaign to add vitamins and minerals in food, starting with the addition of calcium to bread. During the war they visited several sites in Nazi-occupied Europe to study the impact of poor wartime diets. They then experimented on themselves to work out the minimum dietary requirements of the nation, living on a diet based on bread, cabbage and potatoes. After three months, they went fell walking in the Lake District to test their physical fitness. They all turned out to be remarkably fit and the diet was promoted by the Ministry of Food.

This wasn’t the first time Widdowson and McCance had used themselves as guinea pigs. Before the war, they injected themselves with iron in an attempt to understand how the body regulates the amount or iron it carries. But sometimes their experiments didn’t go so well. When they injected themselves with strontium to investigate its excretion, they made themselves severely ill with intense headaches, fever and aching backs and limbs.

After the war, Elsie investigated the composition of human bodies and the way it changes during foetal development and after birth. Her studies moved on to the feeding of new born babies, during which she travelled to Canada to study the nutrition of baby seals and how bear cubs survive while their mothers hibernate, and studied the milk of giant pandas and elephants in an attempt to discover why hand-reared young often failed to thrive. During the 1970s, her work on the composition of breast milk was used in the design of infant formula.

From 1972 until her retirement in 1988, Elsie worked at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, Cambridge. Little is recorded about her personal life apart from the fact that she never married, but throughout her working life, she was revered by her colleagues and her students, some of whom even called her “Mum.” She mentored scientists well into her retirement, advising them to always question their findings: “If your results don’t make physiological sense, think and think again! You may have made a mistake, in which case own up to it, or you may have made a discovery. Above all, treasure your exceptions. You will learn more from them than all the rest of your data.”

Even after retirement, now in her eighties, Elsie remained active. She was president of the British Nutrition Foundation from 1986 to 1996, and her many honours included being appointed CBE in 1979. She died aged 93 in June 2000. When asked about her own diet she said, “I eat butter, eggs and white bread, which some people think are bad for you but I do not.”

Rosalind Franklin – cheated out of her place in history?

This week I’m going back to my science roots, to a woman who died on this day, fifty-six years ago. When I worked at King’s College London, I was based in the Frankin-Wilkins building. Its namesakes, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, were runners-up in the race to discover of the molecular structure of DNA. Like many, I’d only heard of Watson and Crick. But Rosalind Franklin could have taken all the credit for the discovery of the double helix, if only she’d got on better with her colleague.

Born in 1920 into a rich Jewish family, Rosalind decided to be a scientist at 15 and got a place at Cambridge in 1938, but her father refused to pay at first; he didn’t believe in university education for women. She began a successful academic career, publishing five papers on the structure and uses of coal before she was 26, and her work helped launch carbon fibre technology.

She then worked in X-ray diffraction – the use of X-rays to create images of crystals – and accepted a job in King’s College London with Wilkins. The two had a prickly relationship, not helped by a misunderstanding at the start: he thought she’d been employed as his assistant rather than a peer. Their personalities also clashed: he was introverted, methodical and passive; she was outspoken, quick and decisive. Other aspects of her working life, such as inequality of pay and the fact that she wasn’t allowed to eat lunch in the same common room as the male scientists, frustrated her. Eventually, she became so unhappy that her colleagues called her ‘the dark lady’. In 1953 she moved to Birkbeck college to get away from King’s.

But Wilkins and Franklin’s mutual dislike had terrible consequences. Franklin was very close to deciphering the structure of DNA and had a paper accepted by Nature. But Wilkins, frustrated by Franklin, had become friends with Crick and Watson in Cambridge. In the course of Franklin’s move to Birkbeck, Wilkins got hold of her notes and images of DNA, which have been described as ‘the most beautiful X-ray photographs of any substance ever taken,’ and showed them to Watson and Crick without her knowledge. ‘Photograph 51’ revealed two clear strands, giving the Cambridge men the last piece in the jigsaw. “My mouth fell open and my pulse began to race,” Watson later wrote in his book, The Double Helix.They created the model of DNA that gave them their place in history. Two weeks later, they rushed out their paper in Nature, without fully acknowledging Franklin’s work. The same issue of the journal contained Franklin’s paper, but relegated her work as confirming Watson and Crick’s findings, rather than enabling it.

Franklin never knew that Watson and Crick saw her images, and later became friends with them. But Birkbeck was a happier time for her; she turned her talents to studying viruses, went on to publish 17 papers in five years, including groundbreaking work on the tobacco mosaic virus, and was liked and respected by all who worked with her. In 1956 she travelled to the US and fell in love with a scientist, but at this time she noticed the pain that was the first symptom of ovarian cancer, probably a result of her work with X-rays, so she ended the relationship. She died two years later, at 37. Watson, Crick and Wilkins received the Nobel prize for medicine in 1962 for their work on DNA. But Franklin was forgotten, because Nobel prizes aren’t given posthumously.

These days, Franklin is rightly acknowledged, but nothing can right the wrong that Wilkins did to her. On her tombstone is engraved the words: “Her work on viruses was of lasting benefit to mankind.” Rosalind Franklin’s contribution to science was more important than she ever knew.