Beyond Ada: Celebrating Women in Science

in this blog, we take a look through some of the works in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the contributions and role of women within the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852)

W.H Mote, after Alfred Edward Chalon, Augusta Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, 1815-1852

Better known to history as Ada Lovelace, she was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Her mother, fearing that Ada would inherit her father’s wild, poetic tendencies decided that she should have a mathematical education, to suppress this 'dangerous imagination' inherited from her father.

The idea of educating girls was highly unusual at the time; professional educators believed that women's minds were biologically inferior and that they would not only be able to grasp the complexities of such matters, but the exposure to them would also be a strain on their health. In contrary to this idea, Ada was a talented and studious mathematician, determined to push her mathematical abilities as far as possible. This was described in a letter written by one of her tutors, Augustus De Morgan:

Her greatest achievement came from her work alongside Charles Babbage, and his attempts to build what would have been the first computer, the Analytical Engine. She was introduced to Babbage by her mathematics tutor, Mary Somerville and they quickly became firm friends and collaborators, writing to each other regularly about mathematical problems and the ongoing design of the engine. In 1843, she published a set of seven 'Notes' alongside a translation of another paper on Babbage's designs. These extended far beyond the original and included an outline of how the Analytical Engine could be used to calculate a series of numbers - the first ever computer algorithm to be published, making Ada the world’s first computer programmer.

Letter from Lovelace to Charles Babbage, proposing her famous algorithm to calculate Bernoulli numbers.
Image: Public Domain, British Library

More importantly, Ada was the first to see the potential of the Analytical Engine beyond calculating numbers, using computer generated and stored music as an example (164 years after this theory, we finally got the first iPod). Tragically, Ada died of cancer at the age of 36, her contributions to the field of mathematics and computing overlooked for nearly a century.

Mary Somerville (1780-1872)

Thomas Phillips, Mary Somerville, Writer on science , 1834

As well as introducing Lovelace and Babbage, Mary Somerville made several contributions of her own to the study of astronomy, mathematics, and geography. Ada's senior by thirty-five years, Mary's initial studies were strongly disapproved of by her parents, and for part of her life, she had to study mathematics in secret. Her first husband also disapproved of her studies, and she was only able to embrace them fully after his death in 1807. Later remarrying, her second husband, Dr. William Somerville not only approved but encouraged and greatly aided Mary in her work, described as 'acknowledging her superiority to himself.' Her first paper was published 1826, and she achieved fame for her books 'The Mechanism of the Heavens' and 'On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences', as well as predicting the existence of Neptune three years before its discovery.

She continued to research and write on mathematics and astronomy for the rest of her life; her last paper published when she was eighty-nine. Our portrait of Somerville shows her in 1834, shortly before her election as the joint first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

Elsie Inglis (1864-1917)

Ivan Mestrovic, Dr Elsie Maud Inglis. Physician and Surgeon, 1918
© The Estate of the Artist

An innovative Scottish doctor, Elsie Inglis set up a medical practice and opened a maternity hospital to serve the poorest families in Edinburgh's Old Town, in response to her dismay at the quality of care for female patients at the time.

Inglis was also an important contributor to health and hygiene practice in field hospitals during the First World War, despite rejection from the British War Office when she offered support. Based in Serbia and Russia, her work significantly reduced the impact of disease on the patients.

She also helped to set up the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service committee which sent more teams of nurses to setup and man field hospitals across Europe. 

Marjorie Ritchie (1948-2015)

Marjorie Ritchie started her career researching fibre types in the wool technology lab of the Animal Breeding Research Organisation. Over the course of three decades she became a senior scientific officer at the organisation, whose name had since been changed to the Roslin Institute, by 1996. It was in this year that Marjorie played a vital role in the surgical team responsible for creating the world’s first cloned mammal; Dolly the sheep.

Wendy McMurdo, Anaesthetist, John Bracken, and Surgeon, Marjorie Ritchie at The Roslin Institute, 2002
© Wendy McMurdo. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2017.

Majorie's work involved planning and developing the relevant experiments and using her surgical skill to transfer the embryos into the surrogate, which was vital to the success of the project to create Dolly. Our portrait of Marjorie, by photographer Wendy McMurdo shows her preparing for an animal surgery at the institute where she worked for forty-eight years, until her retirement in 2014.

These works show just a small selection of women who have contributed to  STEM fields and improving  science education for women. You can find out more about women in STEM by visiting the International Day of Women and Girls in Science website

The portrait of Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips can be seen in the ongoing display Heroes and Heroines: The Victorian Age, at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

By Terry Gould, 10 October 2017