Fame ... By Any Other Name

This is one of a series of posts written in celebration of Women's History Month, and profiling additions of new images of female scientists to the "Women in Science" set on the Smithsonian Flickr Commons. We invite you to subscribe to The Bigger Picture blog to keep up with new posts, and to help us identify some of the unidientified scientists in our "Women in Science" set.

How long does fame last? And is the foundation of scientific fame changing? Within science, professional reputations were traditionally built upon peer-reviewed publications or prizes. For those scientists who became celebrities—well-known to the general public, and interviewed in newspapers or on television—the construction of fame was a different, often collaborative activity, involving a cooperative (possibly ambitious) scientist and an eager journalist or broadcaster.

Margaret Mead (1901-1978), 1948, Smithsonian Institution Archives, SIA Acc. 90-105 [SIA2008-5981]. Today, the peculiar combination of electronic evanescence and eternity found in cyberspace has changed the game. Scientists can cultivate fame proactively, setting up Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, and they can survive as cyber-celebrities after death.

Two scientists who achieved public fame in the twentieth century—Margaret Mead and Dixy Lee Ray—exemplify the curious manifestations of this latter situation. Both Mead and Ray were rarities in the circle of "visible scientists." In their day, the media tended to notice female scientists only if they won the Nobel Prize or were exotic, eccentric pathbreakers, comfortable in the spotlight and seemingly impervious to criticism.

Margaret Mead became a celebrity during the 1930s. The young, photogenic anthropologist, who analyzed adolescent sexuality among primitive tribes, understandably attracted journalistic attention. Mead could write accessible popular articles. She was relaxed before television cameras. When she lectured, she dominated the room.

Mead is well represented in the Smithsonian’s archival and art collections. However, in addition to such material culture, famous people can now retain "celebrity longevity" on the web. On the website of the American Museum of Natural History, where Mead worked for over fifty years, you can watch her walk through curatorial storage areas. And in 2011, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mead’s birth, the Library of Congress (which houses her papers) created an online exhibit about her life and work.

left to right: Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) and Glenn Theodore Seaborg (1912-1999) Dixy Lee Ray offers a more complex example, in part because during mid-career she simmered in the hot spaces of national politics, yet lived a quieter life in her early and later decades.

After graduating from college, Ray taught in public schools and then, in 1942, entered a Stanford University PhD program and became a marine biologist. In 1963, after years of university teaching, Ray turned to public service, first as director of the Pacific Science Center and then, in 1972, on the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).

By 1974, she was so well known that she received a “Woman of the Year” award in the company of activist Dorothy Height, tennis star Billie Jean King, and actress Katherine Hepburn. Nevertheless, while at the AEC, Ray chose to live in a 28-foot motor home in suburban Maryland, with her deerhound and miniature poodle, hiking the nearby woods rather than engaging in the political high life.

In 1977, Ray became governor of Washington state. The Washington Post had called her an "unconventional anti-politician," "sometimes gruff, often outspoken, always colorful," and that tough nature did not always win political friends. She lost a reelection bid, under constant attack from environmentalists, in part for supporting nuclear energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

After her death, Ray was included, along with Native American leaders Hazel Pete and Billy Frank, Jr., and musician Jimi Hendrix, in the Centralia College Clocktower Diversity Project. A rhododendron cultivar and a major environmental award have been named in her honor. Ray is represented within Smithsonian art and other collections and her speeches, too, can be watched on YouTube.

Will cyber-celebrity last forever? Is achieving online scientific fame now an egalitarian process? As a historian who has studied gender bias in how scientists appear in print, radio, and television, I cannot help but wonder whether the opportunities presented through modern social media might be a game-changer for female scientists, if they are willing to follow the paths blazed by Mead and Ray and to step boldly onto the cyber-stage.

Historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette is a Research Associate at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, and author of "Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Television." Her latest book, "Science on American Television: A History," will be published by the University of Chicago Press in Fall 2012.

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