Women and the art of doing science

For Ada Lovelace Day, a post about how illustration has been a pathway for women to break in to science

Go to the profile of Luíseach Nic Eoin
Oct 09, 2017
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There is an excellent 2015 special issue of the Royal Society’s history journal Notes and Records devoted to the history of women and science, edited by Claire Jones and Sue Hawkins. Jones and Hawkins make the point in their editorial that if we want to assess the historical contribution of women to science, this is not best done by looking, for example, at fellowship of the Royal Society broken down by gender, but rather through other types of participation that might have been more accessible to women, such as publication. In other words, if we want to see how much women have contributed to science historically, let’s look at who did it, what they did and how they did it, rather than to what extent their contributions were appreciated and approved by their (mostly male) peers. In this post I focus on the ‘how they did it’ question – how, at a time when science was even more male-dominated than it is in the 21st century, some female researchers found side-doors into science through application of skills and talents society felt it appropriate for them to have. The particular skill and talent in this case being artistic ability. I look at three women, one each from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, who made their names in science (initially, at least) through illustration.

What I find most interesting about this ‘side door’ approach is that it was a path not only into science, but into a career, especially at a time before science was recognised as a profession. Of course, prior to the professionalization of science, countless individuals made their living from science, ironically despite the fact that most of those recognised as scientists (or natural philosophers, prior to William Whewell’s coining of the term ‘scientist’ in the 1830s - incidentally, he did so in a review of a work by a female scientist, Mary Somerville) were amateurs of private means. Among those countless individuals who worked as apothecaries, engineers and illustrators (to name just a few) were (some? many?) women.

Predominantly denied access to scientific learning and teaching, except where they benefitted from enlightened parents, women of a certain social class pursued accomplishments, rather than education. In Pride & Prejudice (written by a woman from just such a background) Mr Darcy lists the accomplishments of his ideal woman, who ‘must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages’. The merest toe-dipping into sciences such as botany and geography was all that was thought fit for women to pursue, but drawing was much more socially acceptable. For those women who did discover an interest in the natural world, the illustration of biological subjects would have given them the chance to closely study biological organisms, while accuracy of depiction might have led to mechanistic insights. In my own field, archaeology, no artefact analysis would be complete without drawing the artefacts in question, because nothing else so facilitates the close study and understanding of manufacture as illustration (at least this is what I was told while doing my PhD and is why I spent god-knows-how-many hours painstakingly drawing unbeautiful lumps of basalt and sandstone. So it had better be true).

For some women, drawing became a method of doing science and making a living, perhaps separately rather than holistically, prior to science’s professionalisation (and even after it, perhaps).

Branch of West Indian Cherry with Achilles Morpho Butterfly, by Maria Merian, 1702-03 Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717) made a living out of her drawing in order to pursue her interests in scientific discovery: employing what may have been the only all-female scientific illustration workshop in Europe during her lifetime, she put the money she made from illustrating the science of others into funding her research trips to Suriname, before dying penniless. She left a lasting legacy however, not only in her creative and meticulous illustrations that survive to acclaim today, but scientifically – her ideas on metamorphosis are said to have inspired Linnaeus.

Common Eel, by Sarah Bowdich Lee, 1828. L.R.404.c.5. Plate 7 B20113-94 © The British Library Board

Sarah Bowdich Lee (1791-1866) is perhaps an example of a woman who turned her interest in science into a way to make a living. She and her first husband worked together to understand and publish the flora and fauna of West Africa, with Sarah’s exacting drawings accompanying the work. Disaster struck when her first husband died and their trunks of specimens were subsequently lost. As Mary Orr writes: “Without these to deposit at the British Museum, all doors seemed shut to science for this unusual scientific ‘journeywoman” (please read some of Orr's fascinating work on SBL!). Nevertheless, Bowdich Lee endeavoured to support her children through publishing her and her husband’s joint work, accompanied by her illustrations, while the friendship of and collaboration with Georges Cuvier helped to cement her reputation as an authoritative naturalist. Her masterwork, The Fresh Water Fishes of Great Britain, is full of beautiful and precise drawings accompanying the text (and see another Mary Orr article for more on this forgotten triumph of ichthyology)

Stone tool illustrations by Mary Leakey for Louis Leakey's Adam's Ancestors, 4th edition, New York: Harper & Row, 1960. 

Even once science had become a recognised profession, and women scientists were more common, if still rare, illustration still proved a ‘way in’. The archaeologist and palaeoanthropologist Louis Leakey married two scientific illustrators. His first wife, Frida, appears to have taken up her pen professionally only to illustrate her husband’s work. On the other hand, for his second wife, trowelblazer Mary (1913-1996), drawing seems to have been a means to an end: scientific research. By all accounts not very successful at school, Mary had been advised not to apply for university. Yet she was a skilled and careful archaeological illustrator and her talent was recognised by other female archaeologists, Dorothy Liddell and Gertrude Caton Thompsonboth of whom employed her professionally. A book illustration job for Louis Leakey (Adam's Ancestors - see above) brought them into personal contact, and after their marriage she was able to pursue archaeology. Inevitably, her husband achieved the lion’s share of fame for their discoveries, but in more recent decades her achievements have been increasingly recognised (via a Google Doodle and everything, what more could you ask?), particularly those made after Louis’ death in 1972, for example the 3.2 million year old hominid trackway at Laetoli.

So what lesson do we learn from three women in three different centuries who put their artistic skill to use in order to 'do' science? You can't keep a good woman down? Maybe, but there's an important caveat to that. Although at least two of the female scientists I mention here suffered considerable financial hardships in their lives, all were born into relative privilege. While drawing and illustration may be based in natural talent, they benefit from tutelage. Still many more women from less privileged backgrounds would have found that route as barred to them as that of an independently wealthy gentleman of science. Mary Anning is an example of a woman who still found a way to succeed despite having even more limited access to learning, but what education she had was thanks to her Congregationalist background which supported education for the poor. Stephen Jay Gould famously said that people equal in talent to Einstein have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops – no matter what background or what method one uses to pursue it, science is something that requires fostering. By highlighting diverse female scientist role models, Ada Lovelace Day can help girls and young women to realise that they can be scientists, but it’s the job of everyone with an interest in science (from parents to teachers to journalists, not just active researchers) to support the most diverse access to science.


As may already be obvious, the section on Sarah Bowdich Lee is heavily indebted to the work of Mary Orr to which I have provided hyperlinks. Please go read some!

Go to the profile of Luíseach Nic Eoin

Luíseach Nic Eoin

Associate Editor, Nature Ecology & Evolution

Luíseach joined Nature Plants as a locum editor in early 2016, before joining Nature Ecology and Evolution later that year. After a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, she studied Palaeolithic Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology at University College London, followed by a DPhil studying hunter-gatherer archaeo-ethnobotany and stone tools from southern Africa at the University of Oxford, supervised by Peter Mitchell. Her primary interests include hominid evolution and ecology, human-plant interactions, heritage and conservation. Other interests include cats and food security (not least her own).

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