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16 March 2018

Women: Science & Suffrage

“I do not agree with sex being brought into science at all. Either a woman is a good scientist, or she is not.” Hertha Ayrton, scientist.

Test tubes containing orange liquid
Test tubes

2018 marks the 100th anniversary of the first time women in the UK had the right to vote. The suffrage movement saw women organise and campaign for their voice to be heard from the mid-1860s, but it wasn’t until the end of the First World War and the Representation of the People Act in 1918 which gave the right to vote to women over 30. This was around 8.5 million women previously disenfranchised.

Statistics suggest that, as men left to fight at the front from 1914, the proportion of women in employment rose from less than one-quarter to more than one-third, many of them working in munitions. Many women, encouraged by the suffrage movement, seized the chance to enter fields that were previously reserved for men, including science and industry. Many were recruited into analytical chemistry. It was believed that their ability to follow ‘routine recipes’ would lend themselves to this work. However, they were paid at around two-thirds of the men's rate for the same hazardous work.

By 1918, women in labs had helped Britain to victory by making drugs, explosives, insecticides, alloys and electrical instruments, and by carrying out research, running hospitals and teaching students. Nevertheless, when the war ended and the men returned to their professions, many women were forced to relinquish their wartime positions - especially those in universities, as lecturing was seen as a male preserve.

There is still debate today over which factors were more or less important in the passing of the Representation of the People Act in 1918, from the recognition of women’s political rights within a general trend towards democratic reform in the preceding century, to the actions and campaigns of the women’s Suffrage Movement in the years leading up to World War One. The remarkable success of the thousands of women who entered the workplace to do the jobs usually done by men, however, helped to change attitudes and win women professional respect.

The remaining female population over the age of 18 would have to wait another ten years before they received the same right, and despite the leaps and bounds that have been made in STEM fields, women are still underrepresented. On this day where we celebrate 100 years since women over 30 in the UK gained the vote, we remember some of the scientists who played such a pivotal role.


Hertha Ayrton

Hertha Marks Ayrton was an award winning engineer, mathematician, inventor and physicist, best known for her ground-breaking work on electric arcs and sand ripples. She was the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineering in 1899, and the first woman to present a paper to the Royal Society in 1904 (although she was not allowed to become a Fellow as she was married). In 1906 the Royal Society awarded her the Hughes Medal for her work. It was another 102 years before a woman won the medal again.

At the outbreak of war in 1914, Hertha developed the Ayrton fan, a hand-operated device designed to disperse poisonous gases from the trenches during the First World War. She encountered some difficulty getting the military to take her seriously and consider her idea, but her invention was eventually adopted and over 100,000 Ayrton fans were used by British troops on the western front.

Ayrton was a supporter of women’s rights and of the suffragettes in particular. Pre-war, alongside fellow suffragettes, Ayrton had marched behind banners embroidered with scientific figureheads including Marie Curie and Florence Nightingale, and took part in the boycott of the 1911 census, using her form to write an impassioned letter demanding the vote for women. Her most significant role came during the hunger strikes of suffragette prisoners in 1913, who were released, only to be incarcerated again when they had sufficiently recovered. Some of those on strike, including Emmeline Pankhurst, were cared for at Hertha’s London home.


Martha Whiteley

Despite the odds not being in her favour, Martha Whiteley achieved her doctorate in 1902 with the Royal College of Science, while working as a part-time science lecturer at a college for female teachers. In 1907 she was one of two female professional staff in the newly-formed Imperial College, and she founded the Imperial College Women’s Association in 1912.

As with the Royal Society, the Chemical Society didn’t allowed women to become members. Martha, along with 18 other female chemists, campaigned strongly against this. It wasn’t until 1919 that women were finally admitted into the society, with Martha becoming one of the first female members, and later the first elected to the society’s council. 

When in 1914 the Ministry of Munitions took over the chemistry department at Imperial College, Martha Whiteley and a team of seven women were asked to analyse samples from battlefields and bombsites. In an experimental trench, they tested mustard gas and explosives and analysed samples of flares, explosives, and chemical warfare agents.


May Sybil Leslie 

Despite her experience in scientific research, with a first class honours degree in Chemistry from the University of Leeds, an MSc for research with HM Dawson on the kinetics of the iodination of acetone, and a number of years spent as research assistant to Marie Curie in Paris, it was seen as a strange appointment when May Leslie was hired by the government in 1915. Her role to carry out research into the chemistry involved in the manufacture of explosives in Liverpool enabled the efficient production of nitric acid on an industrial scale. Large quantities were required to manufacture the vast amounts of explosives needed by the munitions industry for the war effort.  

May lost her job in explosives research in 1917 upon the return of male engineers from the front.


Muriel Robertson

Muriel Robertson, a zoologist, worked at the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine, London, during the First World War on the problem of gas gangrene. Gas gangrene is the death and decay of wounded body tissue infected by several species of clostridia bacteria found in the soil. Her work focused on preparing an antitoxin to treat the infection.  

Muriel also worked on finding a tetanus antitoxin. The death rate among tetanus cases in military hospitals in Britain fell from almost 60% at the beginning of the war to about 20% from June 1917 onwards, probably due to the introduction of prophylactic tetanus antitoxin injections in late 1914. 


References and further reading