New York’s Grolier Club (47 East 60th Street in Manhattan) has many claims to fame: founded in 1884, it is the oldest existing bibliophilic club in North America. Its shelves are lined with rare books, but it is also a museum of sorts, holding occasional exhibitions covering a variety of topics.
From now until November 23, 2013, Grolier’s downstairs gallery is hosting an exhibit called Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement, which highlights the remarkable accomplishments of 32 women physicists, mathematicians, doctors, computer programmers and other scientists, from the 16th century to the present.
This may come as a surprise to many, but even today there are fewer women in the field of science than there are men. In fact, a recent international study found that women are still under-represented in science, technology, engineering and math (collectively called the STEM fields). The opportunities, as you can imagine, were much more limited centuries ago, when few women were allowed to study and pursue science-related careers. And yet, as the Grolier exhibit shows, a number of them actively participated in scientific research, and made significant contributions, discoveries and inventions.
One notable example is Marie Curie (1867–1924). A Polish-born French physicist and chemist, she was a pioneer in the study of radioactivity, who discovered the elements polonium and radium. She made history as the only person (male or female) to win a Nobel Prize in two different categories: Physics (1903) and Chemistry (1911).
Her research was crucial in the development of x-rays and in the medical sciences in general. As the New York Times noted in her obituary, Curie “has been one of the greatest glories of modern science.” Yet, despite her accomplishments and successes, she continually faced opposition from male scientists and never received significant financial benefits from her work.
Among Curie-related documents and artifacts displayed at the Grolier Club is the laboratory apparatus she used during her earliest work on radioactivity.
The exhibit also highlights the contributions of other, often lesser-known women scientists of the past five centuries, including French mathematician and physicist Gabrielle-Emilie Du Chatelet (1706–1749), who translated Isaac Newton’s masterwork, Principia, into French, and added 287 pages of her own input. There is also Florence Nightingale (1820–1910), who is best known as a dedicated nurse during the Crimean War, but, as the exhibition demonstrates, was also a gifted mathematician who contributed to the evidence-based medicine by using graphics to present statistical data. In all, 150 original items such as books, manuscripts, offprints, dissertations, and laboratory equipment are on view, giving visitors a compelling glimpse into the lives and works of dozens of often “unsung” pioneers.
No doubt their legacies have, in ways big and small, inspired future generations of women to pursue science. As Curie put it, “Life is never easy for any of us. We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”