[HASN logo] No. 33, August-September 1994 ISSN 0811-4757
Edited and published by Tim Sherratt (Tim.Sherratt@asap.unimelb.edu.au) for ASAP.

[Features logo] Eminent Australian Women Scientists

A few years ago, in order to preserve a historical record of the voices of scientists not previously heard, I began a study of Australian women scientists whose creative work spanned the period during and after the Second World War and whose achievements are measurable in the history of Australian science. There are several advantages in concentrating on this group. It is the earliest generation which is available to be interviewed. Most of the women of that era have now retired and are in a position to reflect on their careers, a circumstance stressed in the literature as desirable when undertaking life history studies. They are now prepared to talk more freely about their experiences in a particular organisation than they could if they were still working there.

There were a number of eminent Australian women scientists during those years but even now few are well known to other than their peers. I have already investigated more than ten who have left their mark in a diversity of fields and have made significant contributions not only to scientific knowledge, but also to its practical application in human welfare and economic development, in Australia and beyond. It is astonishing to discover, for example, that it was a woman scientist at CSIRO, Dr Helen Newton Turner, who from the fifties to the late seventies was leader of the research team working on selective sheep breeding which led to vital improvement in the merino fleece; their findings contributed greatly to Australia's pre-eminence in the wool industry in the sixties and seventies. She did not, however, confine her interest to Australia and has also helped developing countries establish methods of controlled sheep breeding and animal production. Another example is Dr Gretna Weste, whose work in the sixties and seventies on plant disease causing dieback in forests has led to important savings in the forestry industry.

If eminence is measured by public honours then several of the scientists certainly merit that description. There is at least one Fellow of the Royal Society in this generation: Dr Ruth Sanger, a haematologist, whose textbook on blood groups was used all over the English speaking world for some twenty years and whose work has helped save the lives of countless children. Emeritus Professor Dorothy Hill, a geologist, was the first woman to be elected to membership of the Australian Academy of Science in 1956. Fellowship of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering has been achieved by few women. Miss Margaret Dick, Chief Microbiologist of Kraft Foods, is one; she showed that, rare though it was, it was possible for a woman scientist to reach a high position in other than academic or government funded research organisations.

All the scientists so far interviewed are nationally and internationally acknowledged by their peers. For example, Professor Ruth Gall made her mark in chemistry by establishing the fundamental chemical nature of steroids. Miss Isobel Bennett is recognised as one of Australia's foremost marine scientists. Her work, starting in the fifties, richly illuminated the little known creatures of the intertidal zone; her perception is holistic and she drew attention from the beginning to that complex and fragile interconnection of living forms which is the urgent concern of environmentalists today. Younger members of the group have also made major contributions in senior university posts and on high level government advisory committees in Australia and developing countries. An example here is Professor Nancy Millis, the industrial microbiologist, who is now Chancellor of La Trobe University.

The aims of the study are threefold:

  1. To document the major contributions which the selected women, many of whom are now in their seventies and early eighties, have made to the advancement of science. The need to do this is in itself evidence of the sparseness of information available on the Australian scene; the void in the international literature deprives this country and its women scientists of richly deserved credit;
  2. To place the scientists' achievements in the context of the history of Australian science and of Australian scientific institutions. (The work already available on the latter does not on the whole concern itself with the role of women practitioners);
  3. To describe the institutional restraints and social attitudes facing all professional women of this generation who chose to work in the male dominated field of science.
My central method is that of oral history, which has the advantage of placing on record the voices of the scientists and giving an immediacy and authenticity to the final account. By interviewing as many as possible of those born in the first three decades of this century and who have retired, I am gathering data from one of the earliest generations in which Australian women made a significant scientific contribution. I find the personal interview to be a highly illuminating and successful tool and the most appropriate to recover and record the experiences and views of the scientists. In the process I am also uncovering first-hand evidence of aspects of the practice of Australian science and of scientific institutions in the post-war period which are not always recognised in the existing literature: for example, the 'invisible college' which was closed to women and the discrimination which many had to endure. Those scientists I have interviewed so far, however, managed to surmount both overt and covert barriers placed in their paths, and achieve success in the face of considerable difficulties.

-Nessy Allen, School of Science and Technology Studies, University of New South Wales

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