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Immortal women scientists

Kate Jeffery k.jeffery at ucl.ac.uk
Fri Oct 20 07:05:00 EST 2000


I thought you might be interested (amused? depressed?) by this letter in
this week's Nature (if you haven't seen it already): 
Careers in science offer women an unusual bonus: immortality
Sir – I was alarmed to learn in your Opinion article1 that President
Clinton's National Science and Technology Council was "toothless" in its
failure to address the shortage of women and minorities in science,
technology and engineering, and that this situation could have
"devastating" consequences by 2050 for the US economy and scientific

An analysis of death notices and obituaries in Nature every 10 years from
1949 to 1999, and in Science every 10 years from 1949 to 1969 (after which
it stopped regularly publishing these) suggests a way of increasing the
number of women scientists dramatically. As I show here, women scientists
rarely die. Once word of this acquired immortality gets out, women should
flock to scientific careers.

Of 1,184 obituaries in a three-year period coded for year of publication,
sex, age at death, cause of death (if known) and field3, women accounted
for 49 of 917 (5.3%) in Science and 13 of 267 (4.9%) in Nature; of the 44
commemorated in both journals, two were women. Science carried 3.43 times
more obituaries than Nature; but the proportion of women remained constant
at about 5% in each journal.

The dramatic increase in the number of women entering science, technology
and engineering during the past 40 years (in which the number of female
doctorates has grown at more than twice the rate of that for men, averaging
7.5% per year3) coincided with acquisition of immortality in increasing
numbers of these women.

Although women in the physical sciences were represented by 4.8% of the
death notices in Science and 8.3% of the obituaries in Nature in 1969, by
1979 there were none — they had become immortal (see Fig. 1). Since women
received only 2.2% of US doctorates in engineering by 1978, more time is
needed to assess the degree, if any, to which women in this field have
acquired immortality. Women in the life sciences started to become immortal
in 1979, but immortality is not yet fixed in this group, since one obituary
appeared in 1999 — a year after women received 45.4% of the doctorates in
that field (see Fig. 1). This trend is also found in other scientific and
science-related fields of endeavour.

 Figure 1 Percentages of women who received doctorates compared with those
who received obituaries.   Full legend
High resolution image and legend (84k)

The fact that women were featured in some obituaries between 1949 and 1969
for all fields except engineering demonstrates that noteworthy women were
contributing to scientific and scholarly endeavours half a century ago. As
more females received doctorates over subsequent years, however, the
numbers of obituaries for women decreased to zero in the physical sciences,
social sciences, education, humanities and other categories. One may
therefore conclude that women in these fields no longer die.

The big question, of course, is what are the factors that led to their
immortality? Is there a gene that predisposes women scientists to live for
ever? If so, I propose the name foy (fountain of youth), and suggest that
the researchers at DREADCO look into this.

Dean Falk
Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, Albany, New York 12222, USA

Dept. of Psychology
University College London
26 Bedford Way
London WC1H 0AP
Tel: (44) 020 7679 5308
Fax: (44) 020 7436 4276
Mobile: 077 2009 1720


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