Friday, October 19, 2012


Today I’m going to write about one of my bugs (in this case something annoying or of concern, i.e. definition 4 in the margin) - the image of women scientists. I was always amazed how many new graduate students told me that I was not what they expected when they first met me.

When I asked what did you expect, they always stuttered. These were the points that they admitted; I suspect the points they didn’t admit would be more interesting. They expected me:
• to be older,
• to be gray-haired,
• to not always have a Diet Coke can or two on my desk and a bag of cans ready for recycling in the corner,
• to be more proper, less frank in my comments,
• to have a neater office.

What is the public’s image of scientists?
My students’ comments made me think. Does the general public have preconceived images of scientists? Do scientists in fiction reflect these popular images? Or does popular fiction affect the image of scientists among the general public? Or a  little of both?

From the 1880’s through the 1970’s, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll, and Dr. Strangelove characterized the images of scientists in movies and novels. Scientists were aging, un-athletic, males with anti-social tendencies. Comic strips changed the image of scientists to be handsome, male superheroes with big egos (like Batman, Iron Man, and the Avengers). Now TV shows (like CSI, Bones, and NCIS), feature attractive, young women as scientists.

Have the faces of scientists really changed that much?
To a certain extent, the changes in the images of scientists in fiction reflect reality. In 1958, women earned 8% of the doctoral degrees awarded in science and engineering in the US. In 1985 and 2006, women earned 27% and 40%, respectively, of the doctorates awarded in these fields. Women held 4.5% of the full professorships in science and engineering in 1973 and 17.9% of the full professorships in those fields in 2003.

Why should you care?
Recruiting students into science is always a challenge. Negative or unrealistic images only make it harder to attract students, especially women and minorities to science majors.

• Scientific discoveries offer great ideas for novels, plays, and short stories. Tidbits of science can add a sense of reality to a novel. Science belongs in more than just science fiction novels and movies. I tried to includes bits on epidemiology, virology, and science policy in my novel Coming Flu.  

Many strong-willed heroines can be found among the women scientists of the twentieth century. They’d make great lead characters or minor characters in any type of fiction. I think you’ll find Sara Almquist, an epidemiologist and the lead character in Coming Flu, fits right into this group.

I’m profiling three women scientists, whose careers occurred prior to 1980 in this blog. Maybe they’ll inspire an author to include a woman scientist in their next novel or encourage a female undergraduate to persist in her science major. They certainly demonstrate it takes grit as well as intelligence to succeed as a woman scientist.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) helped to define the fine molecular structures of DNA with her meticulous X-ray crystallography  (a way of picturing the location of atoms in molecules). If she had not died at thirty-seven years of age in 1958, many wonder if she, rather than Maurice Wilkins, would have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick in 1962.

Elizabeth McCoy (1903 -1978) was a microbiologist. In 1946 the New York Times ran this headline “Wisconsin University Girl Wins Patent on an Industrial Solvent.” At that time, the “girl” was 43 years old and was only the second woman (outside those in nursing or home economics) to achieve a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one reported her response, but she was known for her salty vocabulary. She was fiercely independent and shoveled snow from her long driveway in her seventies. (If you haven’t lived in the upper Midwest, you may not appreciate this feat.)

Hellen Linkswiler (1912 -1984), a nutrition professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was more ladylike than McCoy, even though her background was probably rougher. As a child, she ate moldy bread because there was no other food in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years. In 1960, a banker refused her a mortgage for a home, even though she was full professor, unless a man cosigned the loan. So her father (whom she supported) signed the loan. Although highly professional, she had a domestic side. She was an avid gardener, a great cook, and rated painting (walls not art) as one of her favorite pastimes.

Sara Almquist is Coming Flu is a combination of McCoy and Linkswiler. She’s tough and practical, with a salty tongue. Maybe it reflects her farm background and years as a scientist in fields dominated by men.  

For more information on Coming Flu and JL Greger, go to

See you next week
JL Greger