The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Welcome to the World Wide Web, Ladies
In conjunction with the Archives' "Women in Science Wednesday" series, one of my responsibilities this summer was to make sure that women featured on the Archives' Facebook page were also represented on Wikipedia, either through beefing up existing wiki pages or creating pages from scratch. Often times, women in our Science Service collection (Accession 90-105) are only identified on the web and on Wikipedia by name and notable accomplishments, and that's it. (Some exceptions include writer Betty Freiden and pilot Jacqueline Cochran who already have pretty extensive wiki pages.)
For example, Josephine G. Fountain was the inventor – the inventor! – of the direct suction tracheotomy tube and holds it patent – its patent! – yet there is no mention of her on the tracheotomy tube's wiki page nor is there any substantial information on Fountain through a basic internet search (including her background or birthdate). What happened to make Fountain’s accomplishments basically disappear – especially since the trach tube is something used in hospitals every day?
Frederica de Laguna, on the other hand, was much easier to research. Although she is identified in the photograph on the left and featured on collaborator Kaj Birket-Smith's wiki, her own page wasn't linked from it - and was so under-promoted that I actually created a new page before realizing a page already existed. Why does information for de Laguna exist where none does for Fountain and other female scientists like Jane Blankenship, Kathleen Beyer, or Matilda Moldenhauer Brooks? Both de Laguna and Brooks published. Brooks discovered the antidote to carbon monoxide and cyanide poisoning; like Fountain, she's responsible for something still in use today. Beyer discovered that plants contain sex chromosomes. And Blankenship was a spectroscopist in an era when women in science was rare. All of these accomplishments are notable and interesting – but these women are almost totally absent from the web.
While I found my (lack of) online discoveries incredibly disappointing, there were also a few cases when doing a simple web search actually did prove beneficial. A previous Archives intern, Mary Tressider, made a webpage on five women in science – Jane Stafford, Marjorie Van de Water, Frances Densmore, Emma Reh, and Marjorie MacDill Breit – which helped me add invaluable information to the wikis of both Stafford and Reh. Also, searching for Mary Blade led me to two unlikely sources: a tumblr entry by Blade's grand nephew and a design blog, both of which featured posts on Blade's involvement with a 1978 book on chair design and ergodynamics – and included some great pictures of Blade posing!
Although it's not surprising that wiki pages sometimes don't exist for science professionals (or else don't expound on one's professional career), it's still more common for women science professionals to suffer these consequences over men doing the same work. Part of the need for (and appeal of) the Archives' "Women in Science" campaign is to highlight the many varied and fascinating accomplishments women make to scientific disciplines. And the beauty of the web (especially a website like Wikipedia that is explicitly reliant on user-generated content) is that it allows anyone the ability to contribute information and ensure these great women get the same exposure and recognition on social communities as their male counterparts
- Meet Sarah Stierch: The Archives’ Wikipedian in Residence, The Bigger Picture blog, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Women and Science at Science Service, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 90-105 - Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives