This month we are looking ahead to International Women’s Day (8 March) by exploring archives relating to women in science.

Rosalind Franklin and Athene Donald at work

Professor Dame Athene Donald’s event with Professor Alice Roberts at Churchill College on the 16 February, the latest in a series of conversations with women in public life (Give Me Inspiration! The Paradigm Shift with Alice Roberts) gave us a great opportunity to create a display using materials from the papers of four influential women scientists in our collection: Professor Lise Meitner (1878–1968), Dr. Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958), Baroness Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013), and Professor Dame Athene Donald herself.

The Archives Centre holds a number of key documents in the history of science, including the laboratory notebooks in which Rosalind Franklin set out her original findings about the structure of DNA, and calculations relating to Lise Meitner’s work on the discovery of nuclear fission on the eve of World War Two. A recent acquisition, Professor Donald’s papers will provide a rich future resource for the study of the development of experimental physics. This display gives a taste of the variety of documents to be found across our collections, featuring handwritten notes revealing work in progress, along with early photographs, examples of contemporary scientific publications, and personal correspondence.

The archives of these pioneering scientists demonstrate that women have made contributions of global significance to the development of scientific research. Yet, as the tangled histories of their discoveries also remind us (Franklin’s important X-ray studies were later overshadowed by the theoretical model of DNA constructed by Watson and Crick, while Meitner was excluded from the team who were later awarded the Nobel prize for the work on nuclear fission), it has never been more important to recognise and represent young women’s achievements in STEM subjects. As Dame Athene Donald put it in a recent blog):

“The world needs science and science needs women. You are needed with your creativity, your imagination and your talents. Uniformity of thought, homogeneity of approach, will not lead to the discoveries or disruptive technologies of tomorrow. Bring your difference and bring your brains to the party.”

The display is on view now in the Wolfson Foyer at Churchill College. Our Guide to Holdings can be filtered to show the Archives Centre’s holdings in the history of astronomy, biology, chemistry, engineering, and physics.

— Heidi Egginton, Archives Assistant

Updated 24 May 2021 to replace outdated link

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