Chronicles Insight - Pioneering Irish Women in STEM

Tuesday, 5 November, 2019
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In the realm of education today, there is a strong focus on getting more women involved in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as these have traditionally been male dominated fields of study. This campaign for women in STEM has achieved a great deal so far with the gender parity decreasing every September as more and more young women begin their journey into third level education, but it must be remembered that even allowing women to study these subjects is a relatively new phenomenon. 

Chronicles Insight - Pioneering Irish Women in STEM

Women in Ireland were not permitted to attend University until 1885, and even then they were highly restricted in what they could study, and even how much they could do on campus in terms of joining societies and even being on campus late into the evening. Women were prevented from studying science and medicine as it was believed that their minds were simply not capable of these traditionally male areas of study. This would all change when the first class of women to study science enrolled in University College Dublin in 1920. Read below to learn about three trailblazing women in the fields of science and medicine. 

Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen Lonsdale, the youngest of 10 children, was born Kathleen Yardley in Newbridge, Co. Kildare on the 28th of January, 1903. When she was just five years old, Kathleen’s mother Jessie took the children away from their father and relocated to Essex. As a small child, Kathleen developed a keen interest in science and technology. In order to pursue these areas of study, Kathleen took classes in a boys’ school where the subjects of science and mathematics were available, as well as continuing her studies at the Ilford Girls’ School where she was enrolled full time. At the age of 16, with distinctions and a scholarship under her belt, Kathleen attended the Bedford College for Women where she received a BSc in 1922, coming top of her class and achieving the highest marks the College had seen in 10 years. She then continued her studies at University College London where she was awarded an MSc in physics in 1924. That same year, Kathleen joined the Royal Institution where she took up a position as a researcher on the crystallography team, a field in which she would play an incredibly important role. One of her many achievements was proving that the benzene ring was indeed flat, a debate that had plagued the world of organic chemistry for decades. Her milestone achievements continued as she was awarded a DSc in 1936 and in 1945 became one of the first women ever to be named a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1949, Kathleen Lonsdale became a Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Crystallography at University College London, making her the college’s first tenured female professor. 

Kathleen’s contributions to the field of crystallography and her trailblazing for women in science are undeniable and they have been commemorated by buildings bearing her name in both University College London, and University College Dublin. 

Mary Ward

Mary Ward was born into the aristocracy as Mary King on the 27th of April, 1827 in Ballylin Co. Offaly. Her cousin was Lord Rosse of Birr Castle, a place where she would spend much of her time. Mary received no formal education, instead she was schooled at home by a governess. This would have been the usual state of affairs for upper class girls at the time. From her earliest years, Mary showed a keen interest in insects and plants. From the age of three she collected butterflies which she would place under a magnifying glass in order to draw them in great detail. Mary’s parents were supportive of their daughter’s interests and purchased a microscope for her. It came from London and was probably the most advanced microscope in Ireland at the time. Mary taught herself to use the microscope, and since glass was not plentiful in Ireland at the time, she figured out how to make her own microscope slides out of extremely thin slices of ivory. Her drawings were remarkable, and she even went on to publish collections of them, though she had great difficulty convincing a publisher to take on her work, as, being a woman, she was not formally educated in science. However, the quality of Mary’s work spoke for itself and she became a highly respected name in her field. Her drawings of the Leviathan telescope at Birr Castle were hugely important in helping to rebuild the instrument which is still visible at the castle today. Two of her publications were put on display at the great Crystal Palace exhibition and she was added to the mailing list of England’s Royal Astronomical Society, one of only three women, including Queen Victoria, to be granted that privilege at the time. Sadly, Mary’s promising life was cut dramatically short when she fell from her cousin’s experimental motor car and was crushed beneath the wheels, making her the first person in Ireland to die in a motor accident. 

Kathleen Lynn

Kathleen Lynn was born on the 28th of January 1874 in Mullaghfarry Co. Mayo. As she came from a wealthy background, Kathleen received a full education, which would have been unusual for people in the west of Ireland at the time, and even more so for women. At 13 years of age, Kathleen attended the Alexandra Boarding School in Dublin. During her formative years, Kathleen decided that she was going to study medicine and become a doctor. This career choice was prompted Kathleen’s upbringing in rural Ireland where she witnessed extreme sickness and suffering caused by the poverty which surrounded her own privileged lifestyle. In 1899, Kathleen graduated from the Catholic University Medical School. From there she went on to further her studies in both Manchester and Dusseldorf. She then travelled to America to build up her experience in the field before returning to Ireland. However, it was not all plain sailing for her. Back in Dublin, Kathleen found that many of her male colleagues refused to work with her, even though she was now a fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. She was forced to move hospitals often, and usually found that she was the first female doctor to be employed in each one. Aside from her medical work, Kathleen was also sympathetic to the cause of the Irish Republicans. She worked as a volunteer in the soup kitchens during the Dublin Lock-Out. At this time she became associated with a number of prominent revolutionaries including Countess Markievicz. Her political and socialist inclinations led her to join the Irish Citizen Army, becoming its Chief Medical Officer during the 1916 Easter Rising. She was subsequently imprisoned in Kilmainham Gaol and after her release joined Sinn Féin. In 1923 she was elected to Dáil Éireann but retired from politics in 1927.

Though these women all studied different aspects of science and medicine, they were each a pioneer in their own field. They faced down gender discrimination and fought to have their work taken at face value at a time when the concept of women in the STEM subjects was still new and unusual. Thanks to these trailblazers, more women than ever are studying in the field of STEM, and though there is still a long way to go on the journey towards closing the gender gap, we must be sure to look back with respect on the women who took those first few daunting steps. 

Click on the images to learn more about the entries that inspired this Chronicles Insight.

Dr Kathleen Lynn

Kathleen Lynn

Kathleen Lonsdale

Kathleen Lonsdale nee Yardley

Mary Ward

Mary Ward

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