[FOUNTAIN]Fighting prejudice in the labThe first person to observe and leave a scientific record of the human sperm was the Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723). In 1677, he looked at sperm through a microscope he had built and wrote that there were thousands of small animals moving around in a tiny space.
Leeuwenhoek also observed the sperm of dogs, cats and squirrels. But the rudimentary microscope caused many inaccuracies in his observations. He was also the person who insisted that human lives basically came from sperm and the only role of the female egg was to harbor the sperm and grow it. He based his theory on his observations.
Male chauvinism was more blatant in the works of the father of modern scientific methodology, Francis Bacon (1561-1626). To him nature was a passive, mysterious she, as opposed to science, who was always a bold and rational he pursuing a she. Bacon considered nature to be man’s slave. One had to torment nature (or a woman) until she spoke the truth, he said.
Through centuries of sexist views like this, female scientists had little ground to stand on. In a letter to fellow scientists after being inducted into the National Academy of Sciences in 1944, the winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Medicine, Barbara McClintock, talked about the emotions she felt in seeing the wall of prejudice crumble. She said that many Jews, blacks and women who had become so accustomed to prejudice in society had almost given up trying to get justice. “Although I am not a women’s rightist, witnessing a breakthrough was overwhelming,” she wrote. It was a good thing that Ms. McClintock lived to be 90; she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her discovery of genetic transposition when she was 81.
Thursday was the fiftieth anniversary of the release of the ground-breaking study on the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Behind this monumental achievement was a brilliant female scientist, Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). It was her clear X-ray photography of DNA that played a critical role in Watson and Crick’s study. She died at the age of 38 from ovarian cancer and was never honored with the Nobel Prize that Watson, Crick and another scientist, Maurice Wilkins, shared for the work.
What is the reality of female scientists in Korea? They have all battled prejudice of all kinds from very early on in their studies at school. And it is perhaps not that much different today.
by Noh Jae-hyun
The writer is a deputy international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.