2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the first Nobel Prize awarded to a woman, Marie Curie. For twelve months, the subject of “Women and Science” was given a place of honor in the media, providing the perfect opportunity for us to meet Natalie Pigeard-Micault, engineer at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) in charge of the Curie Museum’s archives, who is specialized in recounting the history of women scientists and physicians. From misogynistic arguments to fear of competition, explore with us the history of the first female physicians and the men who supported them.
This article is a translation of “L’Histoire des femmes scientifiques selon Natalie Pigeard-Micault” available at: http://blog.mysciencework.com/2012/01/13/histoire-des-femmes-scientifiques-natalie-pigeard-micault.html It was translated from French into English by Mayte Perea López.
Natalie Pigeard-Micault was granted her PhD in Epistemology and History of Science from the Université Paris X Nanterre in 2007. Her thesis addressed the evolution of the scientific thought of Charles Adolphe Wurtz, dean of the École de médecine de Paris from 1866 to 1875. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent was her thesis supervisor and played a significant role in her life and career. Natalie Pigeard-Micault’s passion is to dig through archives and investigate subjects that are close to her heart. It has been three years now since she started working in the archives department of the Curie Museum, in rue Mouffetard, Paris. Her work consists of identifying the exceptional women of the past, and of bringing them out of the shadows. We all know about the scientific career of Marie Curie and her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, but have you ever heard the names of any other women who played a decisive role in the Institut Curie? With the help of the museum’s archives, Natalie Pigeard-Micault works for the recognition of women scientists. She is particularly interested in knowing whether scientific women of the time were feminists or not.
Women’s Entrance into the École de médecine de Paris in the 19th Century
The second half of the nineteenth century is a key period in the history of women’s education. Their names have sometimes been forgotten, but many women took part in this slow emancipation. Julie Daubié was, in 1861, the first woman to obtain the right to apply for the baccalaureat (French certificate needed to enroll in medicine studies) in Lyon, after her request was denied in Paris. However, even after she passed the examination, it took a long time for Gustave Rouland, minister at the time, to agree to sign it.
“Clémence Royer was also an exceptional woman. As Darwin’s translator, she went much further in the interpretation of his results.” Natalie Pigeard-Micault, on scientific women who have sunk into oblivion."
In studying the social context of the period during which Charles Adolphe Wurtz was Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, Natalie Pigeard-Micault explored the history of the first female doctors. In 1866, when he received Madeleine Brès’ enrollment application, Charles Wurtz, noting that women’s enrollment had been authorized two years before in the Faculty of Medicine of Zurich, was willing to support her. However, he asked her to obtain first the baccalaureats required for her enrollment. In the meantime, Wurtz worked on getting her in. In autumn 1868, she was finally able to enroll, along with three foreign women: Mary Putnam (American), Catherine Gontcharoff (Russian) and Elizabeth Garrett (British). The latter became the first female medical doctor in 1870 for her work on migraines.
"The announcement of this first thesis defended by a woman received little coverage from the press with regard to the revolution it represented at the time.”"
This was a complete revolution in France: for the first time, women undertook the same education as men. This coeducation was due to the fact that France never created a medical school for women, whereas in other countries, such as the United Kingdom, there were schools dedicated to the training of “super enlightened midwives”. So when France, having fallen behind its neighbors, finally opened the doors of its faculties to women, they were asked to follow the only courses available at the time: men’s courses.
It must be underlined that, even if there was a rather collective opposition to these women, some men, teachers and politicians, supported them. These men supported their enrollment application at the faculty and gave them the opportunity to obtain their diplomas. Charles Wurtz, in particular, played a major role in the integration into universities of women passionate about medicine.
Furthermore, according to Natalie Pigeard-Micault, except for a few people who did not accept them, these women were generally well received by their male classmates:
“We want today not a slightly better educated female companion, but an equal, and we give women all the resources that so far were our exclusive privilege so that they might actually become our equals.”
Richelot, G. La femme-médecin (Women doctors), 1875, Paris E. Dentu, p.43 ff."
The medical press took a dim view of the news, though, mainly out of fear of a new form of competition. It mentioned, for example, the legal irresponsibility of married women or women’s nature, which lacked psychological qualities such as self-control and keen intelligence. The opposition’s arguments in the medical press were also of a physical nature (women’s bellies, when pregnant, prevented them from reaching their patients). When the first women proved that they could attend a dissection course without losing their nerve, journals started putting forward aesthetic arguments (depicting a woman covered with blood, dissecting a corpse and having lost all her femininity) and moral arguments (women must take care of their households). The message they conveyed was that female doctors should abandon the idea of getting married and being feminine.
Faced with this type of opposition, women asserted their entrance into medicine, as well as their so-called feminine nature. They kept showing that they were not entering a masculine profession, but that medicine was a feminine profession. Today, women are a majority in medical studies. (In other sciences, this concern for sticking to the concept of “feminine nature” is much less present.) The significant progress that was made often came from foreign women, to whom people were less opposed, as they were expected to return to their countries after graduation. The success of their approach sometimes appeared through very small steps, in particular through women that had been attending the university’s courses on a daily basis before demanding their right to enroll and then to take exams. To finish, Natalie Pigeard-Micault would like to put forward the fact that, without the support of certain men, women would have never been successful in obtaining the status they now have.
Women in Science
As an established feminist, Elizabeth Garrett fought for women’s right to vote. Once she obtained her PhD, she returned to London where she directed a hospital for women. She also became the first female mayor in England.
Even if some of these women were feminists, not all were, says Natalie Pigeard-Micault, who is a specialist on the subject. Actually, French women seemed to be less committed than foreign women. Marie Curie, in particular, had her own ideas about education, but she never claimed to be a feminist, despite the fact that she became an emblematic figure of the cause.
“Within the community of educated people in which Marie Curie lived, equity was normal. Her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, was much more feminist. In her speech at the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, she made it clear that she wanted this award to serve women’s cause.”
Most of the time, then, it was more out of passion for scientific disciplines than a will for emancipation that women worked to see their projects materialize. It should be said that women doctors had already done much to mark the way for others
« The centenary of the attribution of the Nobel Prize to Marie Curie provoked a real wave of enthusiasm for the subject of Women & Science”, says Natalie Pigeard-Micault. She herself dedicates a lot of her time to it. Mother of two children, she had to reconcile, to the greatest extent possible, her family life with her doctoral training. She readily recognizes that she is thankful to Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, a key person, who managed to both motivate her and enable her to finish her PhD research work.
She then told us about her projects for 2012 and the coming years. She currently dedicates her time to recounting the history of unknown scientific women who worked at the Institut Curie. She is preparing a book for the audience of the Curie Museum in which she relates the history of the institute and its feminine faces. She paints a picture of each of them, focusing her research on the period from 1906 to 1934. As head of the archives of the Curie Museum, Natalie Pigeard-Micault also dedicates a lot of time to making documents and iconography accessible, for example by scanning unique pieces and, above all, by putting online the records that describe them.
In addition, Hélène Langevin-Joliot entrusted to her boxes full of photos and original documents from the house that belonged to Irène Joliot-Curie. She wants to highlight these post-Marie Curie archives. There is no risk of boredom in her professional life, she says, given the number of boxes and cupboards full of archives that haven’t even been opened yet.
To conclude, she underlines the fact that studying the history of women in science is important as it allows one to take a fresh look at egalitarian initiatives in today’s society. Women in science is indeed a hot topic but it is also full of clichés and it shows the example of exceptional women with which young girls cannot necessarily identify. Despite being more and more egalitarian, our culture still uses a gendered speech in which girls dress in pink (see toy catalogs), receive dolly tea sets, admire princesses and do not particularly want to be scientists.
Find out more: 1) A History of Women’s Entrance Into Medicine, Introduction by Natalie Pigeard-Micault, http://www.bium.univ-paris5.fr/histmed/medica/femmesmed_va.htm 2) Charles Adolphe Wurtz, un savant dans la tourmente (French), by Natalie Pigeard-Micault, published by Hermann/Adap, 2011 http://www.amazon.fr/Charles-Adolphe-Wurtz-savant-dans-tourmente/dp/2705680764/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1327420071&sr=8-2 3) Radio program on France Culture (French) Charles-Adolphe Wurtz, un chimiste engagé au temps de la Commune, http://www.franceculture.fr/personne-natalie-pigeard-micault
4) Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent, http://www.u-paris10.fr/61665447/0/fiche_EE8__pagelibre/