Vera Peters: “Cutting the Gordian Knot”

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Joan Reinhardt-Reiss

The Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada was a secure male bastion whose ramparts were rarely breached by women. At the 1975 annual meeting, M Vera Peters, MD was the only female speaker. Her superb resume contained more than a hundred publications and globetrotting lectures. Yet, she possessed three major impediments: she was female, unassertive, and endowed with a soft, sometime quavering voice. Her presence was perfection with neatly coiffed brown hair, twinkling eyes behind large, plastic rimmed glasses, a quick smile and a paragon of haute couture. In high school she replaced her archaic name Mildred with the simple letter M. From her bank accounts to a myriad of scientific papers, the signature would forever be M Vera Peters with initials MVP – truly a Most Valuable Player in medicine.

Vera Peters, an expert breast cancer specialist, always f...

 

 

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Stephanie Kwolek: Inventor of Kevlar

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Suze Kundu

In 2001, a police lieutenant, David Spicer, was recovering in hospital after being shot in the chest and arms at point blank range. Spicer was alive to tell the tale, thanks to the Kevlar body armour that he was wearing at the time.

Kevlar thread is strong because it is made of plastic fibres in which matchstick-like molecules line up and stick to one another, giving it a specific tensile strength of over eight times that of steel wire. Kevlar fabric is even stronger because these fibres are then woven tightly together and are very difficult to prise apart. This is why Kevlar is used for body armour: the amount of energy required to break apart multiple layers of Kevlar fabric is greater compared to the energy that a bullet or a knife can impart. The bullet, knife or other weapon is slowed down and deformed by each layer until it is stopped in its tracks within the body a...

 

 

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A splendid regiment of women: 20th century archaeologists and palaeontologists

By Newnham College, Cambridge

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, Victoria Herridge, Brenna Hassett and Suzanne Pilaar Birch

The familiar narrative of female scholars being sidelined by the establishment is well-entrenched, and deservedly so, given the ample examples available. But to tell heroic tales of the triumph of the lone female scholar misses a key point — networks and collaborations are vital to scientific success. It could also undermine the aggregate contribution of women, potentially allowing them to be dismissed as anomalies.

In this chapter we introduce four British women from the first half of the 20th century who worked in archaeology and palaeontology: Dorothy Garrod, Dorothea Bate, Gertrude Caton-Thompson and Kathleen Kenyon. Frequently presented as islands in an ocean of patriarchal academia, these and many other women were in fact more like a chain of sea mounts and, like th...

 

 

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Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin: What is the Universe made of?

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Alice Sheppard

Cecilia Helena Payne was a hugely successful astronomer who discovered the composition of stars when she was 25. She is well known in astronomical circles, but few others know her name despite the significance of her discovery. She was, as fellow astronomer Dorrit Hoffleit remembered many years after her death, “the most brilliant and at the same time the person most discriminated-against at Harvard College Observatory”.

A note on names: Payne is remembered by many names. She is often referred to by her first name or, after she married, as Mrs G. These days, she would be Dr or Professor Payne-Gaposchkin, which seems more appropriate given her achievements. In this account, as we watch her age and status change, Cecilia, Payne, Payne-Gaposchkin or Mrs G will all refer to her.
A bright streak of inspiration
Cecilia Payne was born in 1900 to upper-class but close and l...

 

 

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Karen Spärck Jones: Unravelling natural language

Originally published in the ebook A Passion for Science: Stories of Discovery and Invention.

by Bill Thompson

The renowned computer scientist Karen Spärck Jones died in 2007, aged only seventy-one. Her husband Roger Needham, another computer scientist who she’d married in 1958, had died of cancer in 2003 shortly after his sixty-eighth birthday. I wrote her obituary for The Times, as I’d written Roger’s four years earlier. I’d written an obituary for their colleague David Wheeler in 2004, and already had Maurice Wilkes’ on file, though it wasn’t needed until 2010 as he lived to be ninety-seven.

Although writing obituaries was never a full-time occupation, as a technology journalist with a computing degree I was regularly commissioned by The Times to cover well-known figures in the computing industry or computer science, and these four clearly merited coverage in “the paper of record”. After all, Spärck Jones, Needham, Wheeler and Wilkes had been key members of the generation th...

 

 

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