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.




Hatshepsut: the woman who ruled Egypt as a man

I’m delving into ancient history for this week’s post, to arguably the first great woman in recorded history. Hatshepsut was born in 1507 BC, the only surviving child of the pharaoh Thutmose I and his ‘great’ wife, but had a half brother, also called Thutmose, through a ‘minor’ wife. In order to strengthen his claim to the throne, this son was married to 12 year-old Hatsheput, something that wasn’t considered unusual at the time. They had a daughter although Thutmose II bore a son, yet another Thutmose, through a harem girl. However, Thutmose II died young, when his son was still a young boy, so Hatchepsut assumed the throne as queen regent. At first Hatchepsut played her role as expected, but after three years declared herself pharaoh, claiming that the god Amun had taken the form of her father and visited her mother, and that she was the result of this union. No-one knows why she took this radical step; historians assumed it was driven by personal ambition but there may have been a threat from another branch of the royal family and she may have been acting to save the throne for her stepson

Throughout her reign, Hatshepsut dressed as a man, even wearing a false beard, and even removed the female ending from her name, calling herself His Majesty, Hatshepsu. She wasn’t trying to pass herself as a man but this was the only way to demonstrate her authority; there were no words or imaged to portray a woman with such power. However, government officials respected and supported her, and under her 22-year rule, she maintained peace, re-established trading relations lost in previous conflicts and organised trading expeditions that brought great wealth to the country.

She seemed determined never to be forgotten; she was one of the most prolific builders in ancient Egypt. She renovated and constructed temples and shrines throughout Egypt; the memorial temple at Deir el-Bahri and the two 100-foot granite obelisks she erected at the temple of Karnak are considered among the greatest wonders of ancient Egypt. She commissioned hundreds of statues of herself and there are heiroglyphic accounts of her life that go into an unusual level of detail, including describing her feelings: “Now my heart turns this way and that, as I think what the people will say. Those who see my monuments in years to come, and who shall speak of what I have done.”

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Hatshepsut is thought to have died in 1478 BC, probably from bone cancer caused by a carcinogenic skin lotion found in her tomb. Toward the end of her son, Thutmose III’s reign, attempts were made to obliterate her memory, destroying statues and removing her name from monuments. It’s possible that a female ruler was seen as offensive, or that Thutmose III wanted to eliminate evidence of her reign to ensure that the royal succession ran smoothly to his son. Ironically, some of these efforts meant that her greatest work was preserved; stone walls around the granite obelisks were intended to hide them from public view but in fact protected the monuments from the elements.

In 1903, British archaeologist Howard Carter discovered a tomb in the Valley of the Kings containing two bodies. One was identified as Hatshepsut’s wetnurse, and the other unidentified until 2007, when a gap in the teeth matched a molar tooth that had been found in an ivory jar inscribed with Hatshepsut’s name. Her mummy now resides in the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

Emily Brontë – iconic and elusive novelist

Earlier this month was the anniversary of the death of an author who only wrote one novel. Many critics hated it: one wrote “How a human being could have attempted such a book without committing suicide before he had finished a dozen chapters, is a mystery. It is a compound of vulgar depravity and unnatural horrors.” When Emily Brontë died, aged only 30, she believed her novel to have been a failure. These days, Wuthering Heights is deemed to be one of the greatest works of literature of all time, and is one of my favourite novels. It’s hard to believe that this tale of passion and hatred was written by a woman who experienced so little in her short life.

Emily Bronte was born in 1818 in Yorkshire, the daughter of a clergyman and fifth of six children. After the death of her mother in 1821, the children were largely left to their own devices. For much of their childhood, Emily and younger sister Anne lived in an imaginary world of their own creation; they wrote a series of tiny books about a fantasy world called Gondal. This world seems to have dominated Emily’s life; she spent little time away from home. She was taken out of school after just six months aged five, following the death of her two older sisters, Maria and Elizabeth. Together with her two remaining sisters and brother Branwell, she was educated at home. At age seventeen, she left home to study but returned, homesick, after only a few months. At twenty, she left once more for the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, where, together with Charlotte, she learned French, German and music. The head of the academy, Constantin Heger, was impressed with Emily, saying ‘She had a head for logic, and a capability of argument unusual in a man and rarer indeed in a woman.’ However, nine months later, following the death of her aunt, she was home once more. Emily later took a teaching position, only to quit after a few months due to stress, and spent the rest of her life at the Haworth parsonage.

In 1845, Emily was upset when Charlotte discovered her private collection of poems but, encouraged by her sister’s response, contributed 21 poems to an anthology co-written with Charlotte and Anne. They submitted it under male pseudonyms: Currer, Acton and Ellis Bell, since female writers weren’t taken seriously at the time, and had to pay the substantial sum of £50 to get it published. Only 2 copies were sold.

Wuthering Heights was published in 1847 to a mixed reception. Many didn’t believe that Emily could have imagined a love as powerful as Catherine and Heathcliff’s but there is no evidence that she ever had a relationship with a man. Apart from her family, her only loves appear to have been animals and the moors on which the story is set. But she never knew of the book’s success. In September 1848, her beloved Branwell died and, less than three months afterward, she died of tuberculosis. Her decline was rapid as she refused to rest, feeding her many animals even when she could barely walk.

Of the many rumours that circulate about the Brontës, the worst is the possibility that Charlotte burned Emily’s second novel. It seems likely that Charlotte destroyed much of Emily’s work; none her Gondal stories survived. Charlotte disapproved of Wuthering Heights and after Emily’s death, wrote a new preface for the novel, which reads more like an apology, stating, ‘Whether it is right or advisable to create beings like Heathcliff, I do not know; I scarcely think it is.’ I think most people these days would disagree.

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.

Sylvia Pankhurst – political campaigner who stayed true to her principles

The recent movie Suffragette has brought the story of the Pankhursts to public attention once more and, as usual, it’s Emmeline that gets the most attention. But for me, Sylvia is the most interesting member of the Pankhurst family. Like her more famous mother and sister, Emmeline and Christabel, she was active in the fight for women’s suffrage, but she preferred a more peaceful approach, presenting her ideas in journalism and books. And unlike them, she remained true to the socialist principles that her father taught her.

Sylvia was born in 1882 in Manchester and was a talented artist, winning a scholarship to the Royal College of Art in 1900, but was also interested in politics and in 1903 joined the new organisation founded by her mother: the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). In 1906 Sylvia gave up her art studies to devote more time to the WSPU, and over the following years was frequently imprisoned for nonviolent protests. She was also active in the Labour party and became close to its leader, Kier Hardie. Although she was only 24, while he was 50 and married, it seems that their relationship went beyond friendship. By 1910, Sylvia became concerned that the violent methods used by the WSPU were not proving effective and she left the organization. As well as disagreeing with the violence, Sylvia disagreed with her mother and sister’s support for a limited franchise to gain middle class support. In 1913 Sylvia was imprisoned for two months, went on hunger strike, and was placed under the Cat and Mouse Act, repeatedly released to recuperate and then rearrested. She then formed the East London Federation of Suffragettes, a group that combined socialism with the campaign for women’s suffrage.

Following the outbreak of World War I, the WSPU supported the war effort and conscription, another move opposed by Sylvia. Instead she joined fellow pacifists to form the Women’s Peace Army, and helped open four mother and baby clinics in London, pointing out that while 75,000 British soldiers died during the first year of the war, over 100,000 babies (more than 12 percent of all births) in Britain had died. She helped and campaigned for soldiers’ wives who had become plunged into poverty. She also published a newspaper, the Workers’ Dreadnought, which featured Siegfried Sassoon’s famous anti-war statement in 1917.

Sylvia believed in universal suffrage and, once the campaign to gain votes for women was starting to succeed, she widened her political activism. She supported communism and even visited Russia, where she argued with Lenin over his views on censorship. Political campaigning became a lifelong pursuit; she supported many anti-fascist and anti-colonialist causes and was a thorn in the side of the British government; in 1948 M15 considered ways of ‘muzzling the tiresome Miss Sylvia Pankhurst’.

In the 1920s Sylvia began a relationship with the Italian socialist Silvio Corio, but refused to marry him because she disagreed with the concept of marriage and taking her husband’s name. At the age of 45, she gave birth to her only child, Richard Kier Pethick, enraging her mother, who never spoke to her again.

During the Second World War, Sylvia became a supporter of Haile Selassie, who was in exile in Britain after the Italian invasion of Ethiopia. This gained her the respect and friendship of the Ethiopian royal family and, following the death of Silvio Corio, she accepted an invitation to move to Addis Ababa, at the age of 74. She died there four years later, and was so revered that she received a state funeral. In her homeland, however, she hasn’t received the recognition she deserves. While Emmeline and Christabel have been honoured for their role in gaining women’s suffrage, Sylvia’s, arguably more effective strategy has been ignored.

Irena Sendler – unsung heroine of World War II who saved 2,500 Jewish children

The story of Oskar Schindler, who saved the lives of 1,200 Jews during World War II, is known to everyone, but a social worker saved 2,500 Jewish children in Warsaw, and remains relatively unknown. Irena Sendler was born near Warsaw in 1910. Her father, a doctor whose treated impoverished Jews, died from typhus contracted from his patients when Irena was only seven, but his influence on her was profound. She later said, ‘I was taught that if you see a person drowning, you must jump into the water to save them, whether you can swim or not.’

During World War II, Irena worked for the Warsaw Social Welfare Department but soon began helping Jewish families by giving them clothing, medicine and money, as well as leading a group that provided Jews with false documents. This was a hugely risky undertaking: assisting Jews in German-occupied Poland was punishable by death. In 1942, the Nazis herded 500,000 Jews into a 16-block sealed-off area, known as the Warsaw Ghetto, where they awaited death in the Treblinka camp. Conditions in the Ghetto were appalling – 5,000 people died each month from starvation and disease. Irena was so shocked by the conditions that she joined Zegota, the underground organization that helped Jews. She obtained a permit to enter the Ghetto to check for signs of typhus, and became the prime mover in a remarkable operation to rescue children. A baby was smuggled out in the bottom of a tool box. Larger children were taken out in coffins, body bags, potato sacks and suitcases; others escaped through the sewer system. An ambulance driver kept a dog beside him in the passenger seat, and trained it to bark to cover any sounds the children made. Irena was a mother herself, and found the task of persuading families to part with her children horrendous. But she successfully placed children with Polish families, orphanages and convents, and the network ultimately saved 2500 children.

Like the celebrated Schindler, Irena kept a record of the old and new identities of all the children she smuggled out. But the Nazis became aware of Irena’s activities and in October 1943 she realized that the house was surrounded by the Gestapo. Thinking only of her list, she gave it to her colleague, who hid it in her underwear. Irena was imprisoned and tortured but despite having her legs and feet broken, she refused to betray her comrades or the children. She was sentenced to death by firing squad but Zegota saved her by bribing the guards on the way to her execution. She returned to her work under a new identity and managed to evade the Nazis for the rest of the war. Her first priority, however, was to safeguard her list, which she buried in a jar under a tree in her neighbour’s back yard. She dug it up after the war ended, with the intention of reuniting the children with their families, but most had been killed during the Holocaust.

Irena was imprisoned from 1948-49 and brutally interrogated by the communist secret police, and as a result gave birth prematurely to a son, who did not survive. She later became a teacher and vice-director of several medical schools, and was also active in social work programs. She founded orphanages and care centres, as well as a centre for prostitutes. However, her public support for Israel in the 1967 Israeli-Arab War forced her into retirement. In 1980 she joined the Solidarity movement. She died in 2008, aged 98.

Irena never thought of herself as a hero and didn’t seek credit for her actions “I could have done more,” she said. “This regret will follow me to my death.” In fact, her achievements went unnoticed until 1999, when a group of students in Kansas discovered her story and turned it into a short play, entitled ‘Life in a Jar’. Since then she has received Poland’s highest honour, the Order of the White Eagle, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

Emma Gatewood – the granny who hiked the Appalachian Trail

I’ve just been on a hiking tour of New England, which included the latter stages of the Appalachian Trail, but my fitness wasn’t up to the last leg, the summit of Mount Katahdin. This trail extends more than 2,000 miles and doesn’t involve just walking, but also climbing and negotiating boulders. Imagine my shame when I discovered that a great-grandmother completed the entire trail three times, the last time aged 75! Here’s her story.

Emma Gatewood was born in 1887 in Ohio, one of 15 children of a disabled Civil War veteran, and at 19 and became a farmer’s wife who eventually had 11 children of her own. Most of her life was unhappy: her husband was violent from the start of their marriage. Few people had sympathy for victims of domestic abuse at that time; on one occasion, after Emma’s husband broke her teeth and cracked a rib, a sheriff’s deputy arrested her, not her husband. When it all became too much, she’d run into the woods. At the time, divorce was near-impossible and when she tried, her husband threatened to have her committed to an asylum. But Emma eventually succeeded in being granted a divorce, raising her youngest three children alone.

In 1955, Emma, then 67 and a grandmother of 23, told her children that she was going for a walk, but didn’t tell them where. In fact, inspired by an article she’d read five years earlier, she’d decided to attempt the Appalachian Trail. This article had given her the idea that it would be a gentle stroll with cosy cabins at the end of each day, so she wore sneakers and took minimal supplies (her only shelter was a plastic shower curtain) in a denim bag she slung over her shoulder. It was hard to imagine a less well equipped person to undertake the trail: she was five foot two, almost blind without her glasses, and had false teeth and bunions. Over the previous year, she’d practiced hiking until she could manage ten miles a day. But this amounted to little when faced with the challenge of negotiating more than three hundred mountains.

When asked why she did it, Emma answered, ‘I thought it would be a nice lark. It wasn’t.’ But she refused to quit. Despite surviving a rattlesnake strike, two hurricanes, and a run-in with gangsters from Harlem, Emma found her joy among the tree-capped mountains. Soon, local media picked up on her story, and, known as Grandma Gatewood, she became a celebrity. One of her greatest pleasures was in the kindness of strangers she met along the way, something she termed ‘trail magic’. At night she would often walk to nearby homes, tell people she was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and always received food and shelter for the night. And so she completed the whole trip, the first woman to do so!

But Emma’s story doesn’t stop there. She completed the trail twice more. It wasn’t the only epic walk she achieved: she traveled to every state of the US, and had many more adventures, including scaring off a bear with an umbrella. She drew public attention to the poor maintenance of the Appalachian Trail, and many claim she saved it from falling into extinction, as well as inspiring many to hike. She also helped establish the Buckeye Trail in her home state of Ohio. It began as a 20-mile stretch in 1959 and now extends more than 1,444 miles; one section is named after her.

Emma died while humming “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” in 1973, aged 85, and continues to inspire writers and filmmakers: her biography has recently being released.