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Here’s to Hypatia: the world’s first female superstar scientist

Posted by on February 11, 2017

By Tom Ireland MRSB, editor of The Biologist and managing editor at the Royal Society of Biology.

Today is International Day of Women and Girls in Science, a day for celebrating the contributions of women to scientific progress and for inspiring girls to consider careers in STEM subjects. It’s a day to celebrate the great female scientists of our time and centuries past: Mary Anning, Rosalind Franklin and Jane Goodall to name just a few in the biosciences.

Hypatia of Alexandria, sketch by Elbert Hubbard, 1908

But arguably the world’s first superstar female scientist lived and worked in fourth century Alexandria, then the great intellectual and cultural centre of the Byzantine Empire.

Hypatia (355-415 AD) was the first female mathematician whose work we know about. As well as being a charismatic lecturer and teacher, she was also an astronomer and philosopher – activities that were almost unheard of for a woman to be delving into in ancient Egypt. She invented equipment for scientific experiments, and became head of a famous school of philosophy. People would come from miles around to hear her speak.

She was basically the Brian Cox of the ancient world.

Hypatia came to represent learning and science, which Christians at the time associated with paganism. As such she became the focal point of power wars between Christians and non-Christians, and was eventually killed during rioting by religious zealots.

The zealots burnt and mutilated her body, but Hypatia lived on as a symbol of feminism, education, science and enlightenment.

Her death marked the beginning of a long period where women were excluded from contributing to scientific endeavours. Throughout the Middle Ages women were taught in convents, if at all, which offered scarce opportunities for scholarly research. When the first universities appeared in the 11th century, women were mostly excluded. Despite many women contributing to the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries, it was the 18th century before a woman was awarded the role of scientific chair.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw more women being accepted into formal science education, and as such the contributions made by female scientists rapidly grew, with Marie Curie becoming the first woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize in 1903. The myriad great female scientists of this period are explored in a great illustrated book by Rachel Ignotofsky.

Unfortunately, in 2017 women and girls are often still excluded from or put off participating fully in science. In order to try and address this, the UN’s International Day of Women and Girls in Science aims to promote gender equality and inspire women and girls to take up science, maths and engineering careers.

So here’s to Hypatia, the original superstar scientist from 1,500 years ago, who ultimately died for her steadfast belief that she and other women can help us better understand the world.

Hear from some inspiring members and Fellows and read more about the RSB’s work supporting women in biology.

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