Linden Gillbank's paper traced a number of ways in which WWII opened up new opportunities for women botanists. Positions for which women would have been considered ineligible, due to travel, distant fieldwork (or the presence of qualified men), were now open to them, while the war simultaneously generated new problems for scientific research. Ilma Pidgeon worked as an ecologist mapping the sandstone vegetation in areas surrounding Sydney. This vegetation mapping had immediate military significance, with the northern parts of Australian being perceived to be under imminent threat. Valerie May worked with the CSIR fisheries, involved in research into red algae. This algal research was important for the production of agar, which was at the time being imported into Australia. Maisie Fawcett meanwhile, became the first scientist with the Soil Conservation Authority, working in an isolated hut on the Bogong High Plains, mapping the vegetation of the area, and examining the impact of cattle on the environment.
In her presentation, 'In Praise of an Australian Plant Pathologist', Nessy Allen detailed the career of Olga May Goss, an agricultural scientist. Goss worked with the Western Australian Department of Agriculture for thirty-five years, making major contributions in the field of plant pathology. Like many other women scientists of the period, her eventual speciality was not her first career choice, and her entry into it was shaped by chance. Nessy Allen's descriptions are never merely dry biographies. She manages to fill in the details of the personal and professional factors which shaped the careers of women scientists, to give a rounded description of the whole person. She obviously feels a great deal of warmth for her subjects, and in describing Goss's she becomes almost eulogiac.
Ragbir Bhathal talked about the significance of amateurs in the development of astronomy in Australia. Despite financial restrictions and limited equipment, the amateurs produced data of an accuracy comparable to that of their professional counterparts. They played a large role in the popularisation of astronomy, in the formation of astronomical societies, and the design and production of instruments. Bhathal's book Under the Southern Cross traces the history of astronomy in Australia. He has an impressive knowledge of the people in the community, although the many women in the field seem less fleshed out than the men.
Other speakers included Judith Pitts, who traced some of the history and politics of the Queensland Acclimatisation Society through an examination of a founding member, Lewis A. Bernays; Libby Robin examined the historical developments of ecology as a discipline, looking at how its marginal status within academic institutions meant it relied on government and community support; John Jenkin explored the role of Horace Lamb in the development of physics at Adelaide University; Amaya Alvarez spoke on the ways in which we construct the 'value' of wildlife according to discourses of economics, science and occasionally gourmet cooking; Jan Wilson used phrenology as a case study to examine conflicts between science and religion in colonial Australia.
As for the rest of the conference, well, what with the weather, and the Gold Coast being not far away, it must be confessed that I'm really not equipped to give a comprehensive account. As with other AAHPSSS Conferences I've attended it was full of extremely varied offerings. Guy Freeland's forays into medieval cosmology are always a pleasure. Jane Azevedo offered interesting insights into the language of postmodernism, and its attempts to make realism a 'dirty word'. She argued for a more sophisticated notion of realism amongst postmodernists, and re-iterated its continuing value as an analytic system. Unfortunately, this was received by some of the audience as an invitation to return to the heady days of the 'Great Men', before feminism, post-colonialism and the like had sullied the Academy. The reception of this paper in some quarters seemed an apt analogy for the HPS discipline (seen through the lowly eyes of an undergraduate of course) - traditional and innovative approaches so at odds that the 'science' that was under examination in one conference room bore little or no resemblance to that in the next.
The postgraduate papers ranked highly in terms of interest and innovation. However, the structure of the sessions, which were half an hour rather than 45 minutes, meant that one either made a solid commitment to seeing them, and only them, or spent a lot of time ducking out half way through other papers. Why were they separated from the rest of the conference in this artificial way? Few students seemed to run out of things to say, and it could be argued that a longer commitment of time for discussion and comments would be more valuable to those at a postgraduate level. The thoughts of these students are the ones which will shape the future of the discipline. It's vital that they be encouraged to look to science in its Australian context so that the valuable work being done in the area can continue to expand.
- Lisa O'Sullivan, University of Melbourne