To mark International Women’s Day, Julianna LeMieux, PhD, GEN‘s deputy editor-in-chief sat down with Amy Scharf and Katie Hafner, the co-founders of the non-profit organization Lost Women of Science (LWOS) to discuss their work. The organization tells the stories of women who made significant contributions to a scientific field but never received the recognition they deserved. Lost Women of Science tells the scientists’ stories not only to correct the historical record, but also to inspire present-day scientists.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

GEN: What is the mission of Lost Women of Science?

Scharf: Lost Women of Science is an educational nonprofit with two intersecting, and mutually supportive, missions. The first is to tell the story of deceased female scientists who did not get the recognition for their scientific achievements in their lifetime. These are women who made groundbreaking, seminal, achievements. It’s possible that they got some recognition within their fields among their peers, and should be known to the greater world for the contributions that they made. Unfortunately, they are not. We want to tell their stories and give these women the accolades they so richly deserve. In doing so, our related mission is to inspire women to enter the STEM pipeline, hopefully persevere through the STEM pipeline, and become leaders in their own right in the STEM fields.

Our primary vehicle for doing so is a podcast. We tell these women’s stories through a bunch of different kinds of podcasts from longer form—the equivalent of a long form journalism—which tell one woman’s story over the course of five to six 30-minute episodes. In other podcasts, we tell the story within a 30-minute episode. Unfortunately, some of the women are so lost that it’s hard to be able to come up with as much information as we would like for more than one episode.

There is a continuum of how lost these women are from zero to 10. Zero means that there is no information about this woman to be found. A 10 is like a Marie Curie. Our sweet spot is five to seven; there is some information out there, but not enough. What dictates how long our episodes are is how much information we can discover during our research.

We’ve been doing this since November of 2021, and to date there have been about 25 women who we have featured in our episodes. And we have a database now of close to 300 women that deserve our attention.

GEN: How many more lost women do you think there are?

Scharf: I’m sure there are thousands more.

One thing that’s been incredibly fun and gratifying, right from the get-go, is gathering information from our listeners. When we built our website, we built in functionality for our listeners and website viewers to write to us about lost women of science that they can recommend. And we have had so many great finds through that. So great, in fact, that we started a new type of podcast called “From our Inbox” where we feature the women who have been written in by our listeners.

We have our dual missions, but another part of the mission that is very important to us is that the stories are all about the science. We want to tell stories that are more than where the women lived and who their family were. We want to describe the science in a way that non-scientists can understand. And we spend a lot of time working to make sure we get the science right. We are not just telling a story, but also presenting a science lesson.

GEN: How do you do your research?

Scharf: It depends on the women. We need to discover who these women are. Some women have been written up in a short article in a magazine but there is no other information on her. Sometimes, there is very spartan information out there, so we need to do a lot more work. We’ve gone to the Library of Congress and numerous academic libraries. If some of the scientist’s family members are still alive, we go to their family members. We go to their colleagues and their mentees if they are still alive. And we go through their papers.

Sometimes, we just get very lucky. The first subject of our first season was Dorothy Anderson. Dorothy had never married, had no children, had been orphaned as a teenager, had no siblings, and her papers were lost. We had no idea where they were. But her mentee’s daughter’s was involved in the project and she said, “Oh, I have my mom’s papers in my basement!” So, we looked through a bunch of papers in a basement. And lo and behold, we found a real trove of information!

GEN: Why is it important to do this?

Scharf: Historically, women did not get the credit for the work they had done. They were given the short shrift.

For example, there are very few women featured in the film Oppenheimer. In fact, it’s barely lip service. There is one scientist that is featured—her name was Lilli Hornig—who makes a funny quip. She says something like, “You know, they didn’t teach me typing at Harvard,” which was where she got her PhD in chemistry. And that is representative of the kind of attention that had been given to women. But so many of these women did more of the work than they got credit for. And very often, it’s the men whom they worked for that got all of the credit. We all know, science is generally not a one person show. It takes a big team over a very long time. When you see that there were no women who were acknowledged as being part of this team, it makes you question, because the work is such an enormous effort. It makes us scratch our heads and wonder, who really was involved in this? And very often the people on the team were some of the scientists’ daughters or wives or sisters. In our podcast, time and time again, it comes out that a woman was this person’s wife. She was this person’s daughter. And she didn’t get to do X, so she decided to do Y instead.

GEN: How do you think that this work will inspire women today to move into the STEM fields? 

Scharf: In correcting the historical record, people will not only see that women have been doing science for a long time, but that a lot of the women that we feature did so under very difficult, adverse, circumstances. Being aware of that could hopefully inspire girls and young women who may also be facing obstacles, to pursue their interest. To go forward and say, “Well, if they could do it, so can I.”

Will we see the fruits of our labor? I hope so, though we’re not going to see them immediately. But telling the stories, showing that women have been studying science forever, that they did amazing things, shows that setbacks or obstacles should not impede us from continuing to go forward. We will continue to tell their stories and part of our reason for not telling stories of current women in science is the hope that they’re going to get the recognition they deserve.

GEN: What a perfect segue into why we’re talking about this today. International Women’s Day is a day to give women the recognition they deserve. How do you feel about days like this that celebrate women?

Scharf: To be honest, for me, there is a little ambivalence in that. It’s great that we’re celebrating women, but why do we have to put away one day to celebrate women?
Do we have International Man’s Day? No. Every day is man’s day.

Hafner: Won’t it be a happy day when we don’t even have to celebrate it? And what will be the happiest day is when we don’t have to say woman scientist. I am rabid about this. I learned this from Charlotte Evans, who was my copy-editing teacher at Columbia Journalism School. She said, you wouldn’t say man scientist so, why say woman? You wouldn’t say “Neil Armstrong, a man astronaut”. That will be a happy day when we don’t have to worry about that anymore. It will take a while.

Scharf: I feel like we are moving in the right trajectory.

GEN: What can we look forward to in 2024, from Lost Women of Science? 

Scharf: We are working on a lot of other projects now. One project, being spearheaded by our advisory board member, Ann Sacher, MD, is to edit, update, correct where necessary, and create Wikipedia pages. We’re doing this in a systematic way, focusing on our Lost Women of Science subjects.

We’re still working on the podcast, and our next five-episode season will be on Frances Oldham Kelsey, MD, who was working with the FDA in the early 1960s and is credited with saving roughly 10,000 lives in the United States because she would not approve the use of thalidomide in a new drug application (NDA)—despite enormous pressure. It’s a great story, not just about her, but also about other women who were her allies. She was quite well known at the time, but has slipped under the radar.

We are also working on many 30-minute episodes and our “From our Inbox” series. We have started a new podcast product called Conversations. We’re interviewing authors who have written about lost women of science. We just had an episode last week with a woman who wrote a biography of black nurses who worked in a tuberculosis institute on Staten Island around the time when they were testing drugs on tuberculosis patients. We’re also interviewing someone who wrote a book of poetry about women in science.

Our work to find a home for our archives is progressing and we’re also starting to talk about collaborating on other media outlets for our information, such as film, TV, documentaries, and plays. And we have a three-book contract with Penguin Random House, the middle-grade reader imprint called Bright Matter Books. Each book will have stories of about a dozen lost women of science.

There are a lot of stories to tell. And we will continue to tell them.

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