Published On: Mon, Jun 10th, 2019

Three Created a Fertility Revolution, but One, a Woman, Went Unrecognized

Professor Dame Athene Donald, a physicist and the Master of Churchill College at Cambridge, where the archives are held, wrote in an email on Monday: “In the case of Purdy it is hard not to see this as sexism at work, made worse by the fact that Purdy was a trained nurse not an academic scientist.”

There is a long history of female scientists’ contributions being overlooked.

Rosalind Franklin’s X-ray crystallography data contributed to discovery of the DNA double helix, but she was not widely recognized until much later. Her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, along with James Watson and Francis Crick, won a Nobel Prize for the discovery in 1962; by then, Ms. Franklin, who had died, was ineligible, because the award is not given posthumously.

Similarly, Dr. Edwards was the sole recipient of a Nobel Prize in 2010 for developing in vitro fertilization; Ms. Purdy had died in 1985, and Dr. Steptoe in 1988.

As a graduate student, Jocelyn Bell Burnell, an astrophysicist, was the first scientist to observe pulsars, and was co-author of the paper announcing the discovery, but the Nobel Prize awarded for it in 1974 went to her faculty adviser, Antony Hewish.

Lise Meitner was one of the physicists who discovered nuclear fission, and though she received many honors in her lifetime, the 1944 Nobel Prize for that breakthrough went to her collaborator, Otto Hahn.

“I am afraid it is and always has been not uncommon for women not to receive full credit for their work,” Prof. Donald said.

“What I find more shocking is that the Oldham plaque ignored her in the face of repeated requests from Edwards that she should be treated as an equal partner,” she added.