Paris, May 4, 2022 (AFP) – The death of French doctor Marthe Gautier, co-discoverer of the chromosome responsible for Down syndrome, brings back to the table the debate about the “forgetfulness” suffered by women scientists.
Marthe Gautier’s role was not recognized until the 2010s, despite her work alongside her male colleagues, professors Jérôme Lejeune and Raymond Turpin.
His surname, misspelled, appeared in the background in the signatures of the scientific article that caused a sensation in 1959, by explaining the chromosomal origin of the syndrome.
A scientific ethics committee reinstated the scientist’s name in 1994, acknowledging that “Jérôme Lejeune’s role . . . was probably minor” in the genesis of the discovery.
Her case resembles that of British scientist Rosalind Franklin, a chemist who identified the double helix structure of DNA. The 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine, however, was awarded to three men for this discovery.
British astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell discovered the first pulsar in 1967. But the Nobel Prize went to her thesis director, without her name appearing anywhere.
– “Matilda Effect” – A historian of science, Margaret Rossiter, even published a theory about this discrimination in the early 1990s, following the work of sociologist Robert King Merton.
According to Rossiter, the erasure suffered by collaborators of great scientific personalities grows when it comes to female assistants.
The “Matilda effect”, named after a feminist activist, Matilda Joslyn Gage, explores this phenomenon that makes women invisible in science.
“In the 19th century, women in Europe were practically excluded from the world of science in the name of their supposed natural inferiority,” Louis-Pascal Jacquemond, a historian specializing in women and science, told AFP.
This situation lasted for decades into the 20th century. This is the case of Albert Einstein’s wife, physicist Mileva Maric.
Marie Curie’s name usually appears next to her husband’s name.
It was the well-known “glass ceiling” that for a long time prevented women from accessing positions of decision or scientific renown, despite “policies of democratization of education after the Second World War, which increased the number of young people and women in science”, explains Jacquemond.
Even in the 21st century, “high-level women scientists are still considered exceptional cases”, laments this expert.
“For a long time, the role of women was perceived as subordinate, auxiliary,” adds Sylvaine Turck-Chièze, physicist.
In school textbooks, women’s names aren’t mentioned as often as they should, laments Natalie Pigeard-Micault, an expert in the history of medicine and women.
“It gives the impression that scientific research is limited to a handful of women,” she adds.