Science: Careers for Women

The growing need for research workers and scientists has opened new doors for women. Helen Hill Miller, who for many years was Washington correspondent for the London Economist, describes some of the work being done in science both by single women and by those who successfully combine marriage and a career.

Mathematician Mary Jackson, the first black woman engineer at NASA, poses for a photo at work at NASA Langley Research Center on January 7, 1980. (Bob Nye / NASA / Donaldson Collection / Getty)

Only yesterday, women who entered such fields as science, engineering, medicine, were looked on as square pegs trying to force themselves into round holes where they weren't wanted and didn't fit. Not many married women worked outside their homes in any occupation, and teaching and nursing were regarded as the suitable means of self-support by spinsters.

But yesterday is over. Today, according to rent surveys, every woman can expect to work outside her home for from eighteen to twenty-five years of her life. Since 1950, more than half of the newcomers to the nation's work force have been women. Sizable numbers and growing proportions are engaged in jobs that used to be regarded as exceptional. And manpower shortages have been tight enough for their arrival to be greeted with enthusiasm; the American population is doubling every fifty years, the need for skilled workers is doubling every twenty years, and the need for highly trained scientists and engineers is doubling every ten years.

Now about 5 per cent of the doctors of the country are women; about 10 per cent of the chemists; out a quarter of the biologists. Some of these are the knowledgeable, careful assistants—the Marthas of the laboratory—who free top men for work on the frontiers of science, but by no means all. Dr. Gerty Cori, biochemist at Washington University in St. Louis, is a Nobel Prize winner; she is also one of the 571 members of the exclusive National Academy of Sciences, which since 1925 has six times extended an invitation to a woman, including this year's admission of the University of California botanist, Katherine Esau. The two oldest scientific clubs in the country, the American Philosophical Society formed by Benjamin Franklin's Philadelphia coterie in 1743 and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences founded in Boston in 1780, now both have women members. This year's president of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada is Helen Sawyer Hogg, trained at Mount Holyoke and Radcliffe, and winner of the Annie Jump Cannon medal of the American Astronomical Society; Wellesley's professor of botany, Harriet Creighton, was the 1956 president of the Botanical Society of America; the Argonne Laboratory's Hoylande Young is head of the Chicago Section of the American Chemical Society. Since such posts are valuable rungs on the ladder of professional advancement, the holding of them represents capacity competitive with the best in the field.

All this has happened very fast. When the Atlantic, was started, women scientists were next to unknown. True, two years after the American Association for the Advancement of Science was founded in 1848, it recognized two women: Maria Mitchell, who started as assistant to her astronomer father on Nantucket Island but rode into independent status on the tail of a comet she discovered in 1847, and Margaretta Morris of Germantown, whose paper, "Remarks on the 17 Year Locust," was actually read by Professor Louis Agassiz. In 1850, the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania opened what is today the only non-coeducational medical school. In 1857, Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn an M.D. in the United States, recruited an all-woman staff for her newly founded New York Hospital for Women's Diseases. Shortly thereafter the Boston Hospital for Women and Children opened the first training school for registered nurses. Its present director, Alice Lowell, is one of the first of seven generations of the Lowell family to specialize in medicine. In 1884, Cornell's Sibley College of Engineering admitted its first woman student. But such "firsts" were few and far between.

Much of the time and energy of women who entered the scientific professions in the nineteenth century was spent in either contriving to take barriers gracefully or crashing into them with results demolishing sometimes the woman, sometimes the barrier. Eminent women now in retirement well remember where fences were located and where they were coming down when they entered training. When Alice Hamilton, pioneer in industrial medicine, left Indiana after a year at a minor medical school, she was able to enroll at Ann Arbor, the university of her choice. But when she began to apply her interest in pathology to practical social situations in Chicago, as a resident of Hull House under Jane Addams, barriers were everywhere. Starting as member and managing director of the newly established Occupational Disease Commission in Illinois, working in the federal government during World War I, and finally teaching as Harvard's first professor of industrial medicine, Alice Hamilton witnessed dramatic changes in the structure of industrial protection: factory inspection and sanitary practices, compensation laws, industrial insurance, and an adequate scientific background for industrial medicine.

Looking back now, from retirement along a sun-dappled stretch of the Connecticut River, Dr. Hamilton recalls that when she was invited to join the Harvard faculty, women were not admitted to the Medical School; her name appeared sexlessly in the catalogue as a discreet "A. Hamilton," and it was delicately conveyed to her that she was not expected to apply for football tickets or use the Harvard Club.

To many a pioneer who came up the hard way, the lot of the science majors of the class of 1957 who are entering advanced study or employment this autumn seems a very easy one. This does not mean, however, that all bars are down. A few "No Admittance" signs are still posted: for instance, use of the 200-inch telescope at Mount Palomar is denied to women astronomers, on the ground that living facilities on the mountain are inadequate, though the 120-inch instrument at near-by Lick Observatory is unrestricted. Similarly, some industrial corporations still refuse to hire women engineers, on the ground that living conditions in the field are difficult. But their potential is illustrated by the work in electrical engineering of Hannah Chapin Moodey, trained at Smith, Rutgers, and M.I.T., who designs cathoderay tubes in RCA Victor's Lancaster, Pennsylvania, laboratory for the development of color television.

Other types of restriction remain. One is the counsel that many young girls get when making up their minds about entering a profession. Interviewed in his private machine shop among boulders and birches at Belmont, Massachusetts, Dr. Vannevar Bush credited folklore with much of the reluctance of women to attempt disciplines based on logic, such as mathematics and physics. Promising youngsters, he remarked, are frequently scared off by the declaration: "Girls aren't good at math." Some girls, he believes, can be very good at it. Dean Gordon B. Carson of Ohio State's College of Engineering concurs: "There is still some social stigma and question in the high schools of the nation when girls major in the scientific-mathematics portion of the high school curriculum."

For whatever reason, it is a fact that while some 100,000 women graduate from college each year, five recent consecutive classes produced only 617 physics majors. One in four of them had studied at a liberal arts college for women, where they were freer from social expectations than they would have been at institutions attended jointly with men. Nearly one in eight came from five such colleges—Bryn Mawr, Mount Holyoke, Radcliffe, Smith, and Wellesley. The facilities of these colleges are frequently inferior to those of the big universities, but their competence is considerable—in recent years Mount Holyoke's chemistry faculty has provided three winners of the American Chemical Society's Garvan Medal. Industry is becoming increasingly aware of women's colleges as centers for the development of scientific skills—half of all women employed on technical work at Bell Telephone Laboratories, for instance, are recruited from this source.

But the main barrier to women's entry into certain fields today is not based on an assumption about what they can do, but on hard-bitten experience of what they do do. The reason why medical schools quota their acceptances of women students at around 5 per cent of total enrollment, the reason why corporations shy away from women applicants for jobs that require costly training, is summed up in one question: Why take a woman when, first thing you know, she is going to get married, have a family, and quit? Here is the center of today's professional resistance.

Now not all women marry. And not all of those who do marry and have families interrupt their work for more than brief trips to the hospital when their children are born. A great many continue to work on a part-time basis. Many of those who do quit come back later—the big recent additions to the labor force have been women over thirty-five.

But the two-way stretch of a home and a job, during at least part of a married woman's life, is undeniable. To solve this highly personal problem without quitting requires finding an employing institution that can accommodate itself to maternity leave, part-time employment, sudden emergencies. It requires a family in accord with the effort. It requires finding, for at least part of the time when the children are young, another woman who can relieve the scientist of the necessity of being in two places at the same time. And it requires a certain philosophy, about scientific attainment: in today's competitive conditions, continuity of work is almost indispensable if one is to get as far as one might be able to go—as Vannevar Bush puts it, "Getting to the top on part time is doggone tough."

Yet the number of women who have found a workable solution to their problem is rising rapidly. How do they do it? One important element is the choice of a specialty. One that allows some flexibility is better than one which binds its practitioner to a strict or an unpredictable schedule. Some 18 per cent of women physicians are pediatricians, but Dr. Virginia Kneeland Frantz, professor of surgery at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, attending surgical pathologist at the Presbyterian Hospital of New York, and mother of three, made this point in a recent piece of advice to women candidates for medical school: "It is rare to find a successful woman pediatrician who has had time to raise her own children. This specialty is full of emergency calls, and unless an unusually indulgent husband is willing to sit up with junior's croup, a serious conflict may arise when the doctor is called out in the middle of the night by an anxious parent for croup which may be less dramatic than the one the physician had to leave unattended at home."

In a few occupations, a clean break while the children are young is not too costly: Dr. Alan Waterman of the National Science Foundation Points to the acute need for science teachers in the secondary schools, and the possibility of science majors filling this need when their children reach school age. Scientific concepts change rapidly, but the fundamentals taught in introductory courses do not change as fast; a woman with good basic training can make up for lost time rather easily.

But in many specialties, to keep current enough to hold a place, a woman must stay on. The conditions of doing so are changing; there is a considerable difference between the experience of the women scientists who are now at the peak of their careers and those who are just starting their professional life.

A generation ago, most women had a few years after college and before marriage in which they could get at least a rung or two up the professional ladder. In their day, families were apt to consist of two children; there was a favorable differential between professional salaries and the wages of hired help, and competent help was available. Dr. Evelyn Witkin, now biologist at the University of the State of New York, made a solid start at the Carnegie Institution before marrying a fellow scientist and having two sons. She took a year off at the time each was born, was on part time for five years. Her specialty allows some flexibility—though even the organisms of bacteriological research can enforce a schedule and today she operates with a team of assistants. She notes, however, that while children are small, no woman can do all that she otherwise might in her scientific field, and that it is highly important to her family and to herself that she make peace with this fact.

For today's young women, by contrast, marriage is likely to come during or immediately after college, family plans include three to five children, help is scarce and costly. On the other hand, with half of all families complete before the mother is thirty, a girl who marries on leaving college will have a larger consecutive portion of her working life ahead of her when her youngest starts school. And with automation and related developments, a general shortening of working hours seems likely to reduce the stigma that now often attaches to part-time employment. At the beginning of her life as a married doctor, Theresa Long Siebert has so far worked close to full time. She and a classmate, David Siebert, got their M.D.'s from New York's Physicians and Surgeons in 1951. At first review, two doctors in one family seemed too complicated a prospect; she departed for Strong Memorial in Rochester while he interned in New York. But the next June they married.

That August he went into the Air Force. During his indoctrination period she served for six weeks in a thirty-bed private hospital at Weetumpka, Alabama in December she followed him to the site of a future jet base in Germany. There she became assistant to the surgical director of a German hospital; as her German improved, she worked in the clinic. As soon as the base was in use, the Air Force hired her as a civilian physician. Laurel was born in Wiesbaden in March, 1954.

Back in New York, her husband began a four-year residency in surgery. She decided to become a radiologist—with a referral specialty, she will not be the first doctor called and her working hours can therefore be fairly regular. In Germany, Theresa Siebert had thought of solving her child-care problem by bringing her German help back with her. But her mother, left a widow with children at home, decided to earn income by foster care. Laurel is cared for in her apartment daily.

Toward the end of 1956, the necessary permissions for a second child had been obtained: her mother was willing to help care for it, and the hospital was willing for her to cut down on fluoroscopy during pregnancy in view of the radiation hazard. This April she passed the examination of the American Board of Radiology, finished her residency just in time for the accurately calculated birth of the second baby. As soon as her husband's residency is completed, the Sieberts plan a joint search for new pastures in some small community.

The husband-and-wife team is an institution which, from the Curies to the Coris, has provided many married women scientists with the flexibility that they need. It may be a simple partnership such as that of Louis and Pauline Moyd, consulting geologists retained by companies engaged in the use of minerals. The Moyds' office is in their Yonkers home, where the thirteen-year-old twins are based, with a housekeeper in charge. Mrs. Moyd's specialty is the firm's research work: her thick reference files list the location and characteristics of known deposits, make quick checking easy when prospectors visit client corporations with gleams in their eyes and stories of mountains of new-found ore. She is the research and procurement officer when contracts call for analysis of costs of exploitation—production expenses, extent of market, tax status—or establishment of an operation from the purchase of machinery, to the hiring of staff. This year, the first woman to do so, she organized and moderated a session at the annual meeting of the 87-year-old American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers.

Some husband-and-wife teams are more complex than the Moyds' simple partnership. The Haskins Laboratories is a private, nonprofit organization in the field of pure research employing a considerable staff, started by Caryl P. Haskins when Edna F. Haskins was still a brilliant physical chemist at King's College, Durham, England. For a number of years after their marriage, both centered their work in the Laboratories besides serving on its directing board; now they are in Washington, where he has succeeded Vannevar Bush, as head of the Carnegie Institution, and she is continuing her work.

The 33-year-old firm of Foster D. Snell, Inc., is a commercial operation in the field of applied science filling a ten-story building in lower New York; Cornelia Snell, former mathematician who shifted to chemistry, is its specialist in reference work. When the firm is called on for expert witness in a patent case, she prepares evidence. When a hearing is called after an industrial accident like last summer's New York dock explosion, she organizes the testimony. Covering some hundred American trade journals monthly, she assembles information to the specifications of foreign clients. When a customer commissions the laboratory to develop a special product (the unwettable glass for Navy planes came from the Snell firm), she makes a search before research starts, to find out how—and how not—to go about it. In the American Chemical Society, she has been secretary and chairman of the New York Section, and a national councilor.

Marriage into a scientific partnership is a rather special arrangement. Most women who enter science find their place as part of the staff of a private corporation, a government agency, a nonprofit institution, a university. Over the country, here is what some of the topflight women are doing, in various scientific fields.

At General Electric's superb new laboratory at Schenectady, New York, physicist Katharine Blodgett found how to make the nonreflecting glass now used for camera lenses. Dr. Blodgett is very matter-of-fact about research: "More often than not, you do the experiment and then think of it afterwards. If you'd known how to do it in the first place, you would have done it more directly." In the course of her investigations of the characteristics of films on water surfaces, Dr. Blodgett found that a certain type of soft material could be deposited on glass and built up in accurate layers—their thickness was one ten-millionth of an inch. The layers absorbed light in proportion to their thickness; in Dr. Blodgett's office, a piece of glass on which there is a sequence of steps, each a millionth of an inch thicker than the preceding, reflects a brilliant spectrum. Applying her discovery to the specific problem of the reflection of the light on lenses, Dr. Blodgett found that if a coating four millionths of an inch thick were put on both sides of a piece of glass, almost no light at all was reflected—and nonreflecting glass for commercial use got its start. Today Dr. Blodgett is working on properties of atomic hydrogen.

At the Argonne National Laboratory at Lemont, Illinois, chemist H. Gladys Swope is in charge of disposal of radioactive waste. Starting in her student days as stenographic help at the Chicago Sanitary District, she rapidly edged her way around the glass partition that divided the office from the laboratory, became a specialist in waste disposal, and has never had time to finish her Ph.D. At the Argonne, waste disposal consists of extracting radioactive substances from the water used in operating the reactor and in the laboratories. Miss Swope is likewise in charge of Argonne's gamma irradiation facility, started two years ago, where experiments in sterilization without heat are carried on both for government accounts, such as the quartermaster food container project, and for private commercial firms, most of them concerned with the packing and packaging of food.

At the Carnegie Institution's Long Island Laboratory at Cold Spring Harbor, plant geneticist Barbara McClintock has been working eleven years on a corn-breeding experiment. More than most of today's scientists, she is a lone-wolf investigator, living for the excitement of finding things out, embarrassed when honors are thrust upon her, restive at the organizational responsibilities that go with position, uninterested in financial returns—and withal, merry. "Scientists," she comments, "should be dedicated but not consecrated."

Dr. McClintock wants no assistants, believes that immediate familiarity with each phase of a plant's development is essential to the geneticist's grasp of clues. That is how, quite suddenly, she recognized the hypothesis about the growth process on whose verification she has been working: "It looked at me." Her assumption is that the nucleus of a cell contains a complex intranuclear system which triggers successive genes into action as the plant grows. Understanding of this triggering mechanism should make possible control of growth and the production of preferred types of plant from selected material.

Recently Dr. McClintock's material—her ears of corn, grain by grain, have long and meticulously kept genealogies—has been used by other researchers. She welcomes substantiation of her findings by their duplication of her experiments, but as a geneticist she is concerned not with what is commercially useful but with what is true.

Back in the 1920s, Dr. Sarah M. Jordan of Boston was one of three medical students whom Dr. Frank H. Lahey asked to join him in the establishment of a group clinic. Started in the apartment across the hall from the one where the Laheys lived, the clinic now occupies four blocks of tall buildings, offering diagnostic work in all specialties except obstetrics and ophthalmology. Dr. Jordan directs the department of gastroenterology. When asked whether she thought that women doctors are more likely to attract patients if they go into certain specialties like pediatrics or dermatology, she replied: "I've never noticed a difference but then, so many men have ulcers." Her patients at the time included Sir Anthony Eden.

Development of the Blalock-Taussig operation, whose purpose is to turn blue babies to a normal pink, is a parallel example of the opportunity offered to women scientists by membership in a large organization. In 1930, at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, Dr. Edwards Park put Dr. Helen B. Taussig in charge of the Children's Heart Clinic. As she accumulated a file of X-ray records, some of them substantiated and elaborated by autopsy findings, even though surgery of the heart had never yet been attempted, she began to dream of a heart operation to provide, a blood supply to the lungs of cyanotic children who lacked it because of congenital defects.

Normally, when extrauterine life begins at birth, the ductus arteriosus which has provided the child's blood supply closes and circulation of blood to the lungs begins. In 1942 Dr. Alfred Blalock, who was interested in vascular surgery before he came to the Hopkins, performed his first operation closing a ductus which had failed to close naturally. When it was over, Dr. Taussig congratulated him but said, "The truly great day will come when you build a ductus to supply the lungs of a cyanotic child." Just over two years later, after experiments on laboratory animals, Dr. Blalock did exactly that. Since, then, 1500 such operations have been performed at the Hopkins.

In preparing for such an operation, Dr. Taussig designates the cases which she believes will benefit from surgery, and supplies the surgeon with the most complete information possible as to the nature of the malformation which he will find, and the best angle of approach. Sometimes the change in color takes place while the child is still on the operating table.

Women scientists at colleges and universities have a double opportunity: that of pursuing their own research, and that of capturing the imagination of the next generation and attracting it into their specialty. Cecilia Gaposchkin, now a full professor of astronomy at Harvard, started her academic life at Newnham College, Cambridge. When Harvard's Harlow Shapley was abroad on a lecture tour, she asked if she might come to work with him for a year. That was thirty-five years ago, and she says there is more to do now than when she started. In her study, across desk and tables, large graphs show the spectra of heavenly bodies, particularly the hot stars. Some of these vary in brightness with a rhythm more constant than a clock. Others are new stars that explode, usually once and for all. Dr. Gaposchkin observes the geometry of the explosion, noting what flies off, in what direction, how fast.

The decision of Barnard-trained Henrietta Swope to become an astronomer was likewise firmed up by a Shapley lecture, this time at Nantucket's Maria Mitchell Observatory. Now research assistant to Dr. Walter Baade at Palomar, she too works in the variable star field, observing photographs, making color-magnitude diagrams—measurements of the temperature and luminosity of stars in globular clusters or galaxies, extended over time, indicate the evolution of stars within a system.

While astronomers measure the energy of stars, an effort to harness the sun's energy goes forward at New York University. Hungarian-born Maria Telkes, in her childhood, saw a French print of a solar machine—Vue générale de mon grand appareil exposé au Trocadero en 1878—which now hangs on her office wall. Ever since, she has been engaged in solar energy research: a method for distilling drinking water from sea water, used on life rafts in wartime by downed airmen; a solar oven; a solar house.

At Columbia University, when the elevator reaches the floor where Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu's is located, the door opens on a sign, "No radioactive materials permitted beyond here." Dr. Wu has worked on nuclear physics almost from the first developments in the field. Daughter of a scholarly family in Shanghai, she graduated in the 1930s from National Central University in Nanking, came to the University of California for a Ph.D. under Dr. Ernest Lawrence, took part in the Manhattan project, and now investigates nuclear forces and structure, particularly beta disintegration, as a member of the Columbia faculty.

Science had not been a family specialty, but Dr. Wu points out that the scientific method—make a bold assumption, then engage in a painstaking proof—is by no means foreign to Chinese thinking. Early this year, Dr. Wu and two fellow Chinese physicists, Dr. Tsung Dao Lee of Columbia and Dr. Chen Ning Yang of the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, made scientific news when the two latter made a bold assumption and Dr. Wu devised a painstaking proof.

The law in question was the so-called "parity" law: that objects that are mirror images of each other must behave the same way. For the past four years, physicists have been puzzling over observed behavior that did not fit this law. Then Drs. Lee and Yang decided that the law was as, unnecessary as the nineteenth-century assumption that light waves were conveyed by a mysterious substance called "ether." Dr. Wu thereupon set up an experiment which did to "parity" what the famous Michelson-Morley experiment did to "ether." At Washington's Bureau of Standards, she and her co-workers oriented the spin of the radioactive cobalt nuclei at an extremely low temperature so near absolute zero that random thermal movements were all but eliminated, and the disintegration of radioactive atoms could be observed with a minimum of other effects occurring simultaneously. Under the "parity" concept, the electrons should have shot off in paired directions. They didn't. A second experiment by two other scientists confirmed the failure of the law.

Dr. Wu summarized her findings tersely: "Parity was not observed." Subsequently, the former United States Ambassador to Italy, Mrs. Clare Booth Luce, lauded Dr. Wu for her work in connection with the refutation of the nuclear principle of parity. As between men and women scientists, she said, in the case of Chien-Shiung Wu, parity most definitely is observed.