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Biochemistry: A Fruitful Field of Work for Women?

Amidst ongoing discussion regarding women’s participation and retention in the field of molecular biosciences, it seems worth asking what factors drew women into biochemistry in the early years of the twentieth century. As a relatively new and expanding scientific field, biochemistry may have been more open to employing women than more established fields. In their analysis of the careers of American and British women in nineteenth-century science, Mary and Thomas Creese have suggested that women who pursued their careers in established areas of Chemistry largely did so as assistants to men. Their findings suggest that women were more successful in newer fields such as food chemistry, bacteriological chemistry and public health chemistry.

In part, the relative success of women in biochemistry may have been due also to conceptions of what constituted suitable work for women. In the American context, Rima Apple has explored how women were able to forge a place for themselves in the expanding sphere of nutrition because the field was perceived as an area of women’s work (See Kamminga and Cunningham, 1995). A brief examination of the articles authored by women biochemists suggests that similar trends operated in Britain; many articles related to the biochemistry of food, nutrition and cooking. Dorothy E. Lindsay first published in the Biochemical Journal in 1909; subsequently she authored Report upon a Study of the Diet of the Labouring Classes in the City of Glasgow: Carried Out During 1911-1912 (1913), a work which combined nutrition and public health. Gladys Annie Hartwell, who published 25 articles in the Biochemical Journal between 1921 and 1938, also focussed her research on diet and nutrition.

Once working in the field, there is some evidence that women acted to support one another. In an interview with Sir Gordon Wolstenholme, Elsie May Widdowson acknowledged the importance of her PhD supervisor Helen Archbold, with whom she co-authored her first article in the Biochemical Journal (‘Iodimetric determination of reducing sugars in the apple’, 1931, pp. 101-116). There is also tantalising evidence which suggests that early women biochemists may well have played a significant role in the broader feminist movement, nationally and internationally. Ida Smedley Maclean and Winifred Cullis were co- founders of the British Federation of University Women and in 1920 they toured America as representatives of the Federation of University Women of Great Britain (see papers of Professor Caroline Spurgeon relating to work with the International Federation of University Women: PP7/6/1/4). I had been hoping to explore the involvement of women biochemists in the British Federation of University Women, but unfortunately this collection is currently not catalogued.