The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Science
Earlier this year, the organizations LeanIn.org and Getty Images announced a joint effort to change how women are portrayed in media content and advertising (New York Times, February 9, 2014). The project will create special collections of stock photographs that represent women "in more empowering ways."
The practices that have prompted this project are neither easily changed nor new. While I was researching my recent contribution for Women's History Month (a post about Science Service medical editor Jane Stafford), I came across a striking example that involved editorial decisions by two accomplished, smart women sensitive to the trends of their times.
In 1956, Faye Johannes Marley (1900-1992), editor of Independent Woman, the magazine of the National Federation of Business and Professional Women's Clubs, asked Stafford to contribute an article that would focus on "scientific work for the peaceful and constructive use of nuclear energy" by the "small band of pioneers who showed that women could make contributions" to science. After a telephone conversation to discuss the story, Marley wrote Stafford and urged her not to "emphasize the scholarship angle," but instead to play up "the various types of scientific work" that women might pursue after marriage.
Among the many "treats" that await historians in archival records are handwritten and marginal notes. Along with letters and drafts, these scribbles often expose the messy construction process that can precede a finished work. They can also reveal how biases and stereotypes influence content and editorial choices.
Stafford's contemporaneous notes mention several non-scientific aspects, such as the "hazel eyes" and "brown hair" of astronomer Elizabeth Roemer. One note suggests that the article "play up the refugee angle" (a goal fulfilled by choosing Science Talent Search winner Taimi Toffer. Mentioning the husbands and fathers of the subjects (who included astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, chemist Marjorie Ann Gilbert Moldenhauer, ecologist Vera Rada Demerec Dyson-Hudson, and psychologist Gloria Lauer Grace) was another nod to cultural values of the time and a practice not usually followed when discussing male scientists.
Stafford's finished article emphasized, in language emblematic of the 1950s, that these representatives of the nation's "scientific womanpower" were "by no means the blue-stocking type." Young woman contemplating careers in science could have it all. The scientists profiled were said to "have feminine charm and athletic ability as well as intellectual prowess." "Playing this feminine role need not keep them from continuing their careers as scientists," she concluded.
For keen-eyed consumers of popular culture, such examples will seem eerily familiar. The mass media and social media continually transmit and reinforce statements about the role and status of women in science. Each March, we make a concerted effort to highlight the remarkable achievements of remarkable women but the challenge remains unchanged: how to describe and discuss women in real terms while demythologizing the notion that only "superwomen" can become "superscientists." Real female scientists have hazel eyes, families, and charm as well as Nobel prizes, hundreds of publications, and ground-breaking discoveries. The challenge in the future will be to break down constraining stereotypes, while not closing the door on diverse choices and life paths.
Lean in, readers. Let the discussion begin.
- Record Unit 7091 - Science Service, Records, circa 1910-1973, Smithsonian Institution Archives - Includes correspondence, drafts, and notes related to Jane Stafford’s article
"Truth is stranger than fiction" is the adage that immediately came to mind when I stumbled across this odd bit of Smithsonian history. In 1848, first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry helped write a proposal to create an International Board of Subterranean Exploration. This joint endeavor between the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and Belgium aimed to test Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s theory that the Earth’s core was molten. Additionally, the explorations would seek to uncover the magnetic condition of the earth’s crust and to analyze coal measures. Joseph Henry was noted for his pioneering research into magnetic phenomena, so this was a topic that interested him.
To begin their work, the commission decided the best way to explore the subterreanean parts of of our world would be to excavate a shaft into the center of Earth. The report stated that the committee selected a site in Bruges, Belgium, and commenced digging on April 10, 1849. For more than twenty years, men of science worked at the site drilling with diamond-pointed instruments and taking measurements of all kinds. They learned about magnetic forces and the make-up of the Earth’s crust. Then, one fateful November night in 1872 the project went up in flames! In the wee hours of the morning, men at the site heard a series of explosions. Waves of heat, thunderous sounds and ash erupted throughout the region. Soon, molten lava sprung from the shaft and destroyed everything in its wake.
The devastating results of this search for knowledge is almost hard to believe. In fact, I hope you didn't . . .
In truth, we did come across this bizarre article mentioning Joseph Henry. However, it turns out that this and several others like it are the collective writings of William Henry Rhodes, or “Caxton.” Rhodes, a lawyer by trade, wrote a series of science fiction hoaxes that were published in newspapers around the country. He first published a hoax piece, The Case of Summerfield, in 1871 in The Sacramento Union. This piece was written as a report on a man who threatened to set the world’s oceans on fire using chemicals unless he was paid one million dollars. For a few days people were in a state of panic until The Sacramento Reporter unveiled the story as a hoax and, for the most part, people were amused by the prank.
Rhodes continued to write and in 1872 produced the The Earth’s Hot Center. This time the hoax was presented as extracts from a report written by John Flannagan, United States Consul at Bruges, to the United States Secretary of State, Hamilton Fish. It told the harrowing tale of scientists going too far and creating a volcano in the middle of Belgium. Although parts of the story may seem fantastical today, Rhodes’ use of prominent names such as Henry, Fish, and Roderick Murchison, a noted Scottish geologist; organizations like the Smithsonian; and his understanding of the scientific theories prevalant at the time helped create a masterful story that initially hoodwinked his readership until the deception was revealed. Secretary Joseph Henry was quite a serious fellow, and we don’t know his reaction, but we hope he enjoyed this bit of notoriety.
P.S. The image of the “excavation site” is actually an image of the Parícutin volcano in Mexico in 1943 taken by Smithsonian curator of minerals William Foshag. The image of Henry . . . well, that is actually him.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, ed. Daniel O’Connell, (A. L. Bancroft and Company: San Francisco, CA) 1876.
- Caxton's Book: A Collection of Essays, Poems, Tales and Sketches, William Henry Rhodes, Introduction by Sam Moskowitz (Hyperion Press: Westpore, CT) 1974.
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