When elementary school children were asked to draw a picture of a scientist in a recent study, 820 girls and 699 boys drew male scientists. Only 129 girls and just 6 boys drew female scientists (Fort & Varney, 1989). It is not just children who think of science as a male endeavor. In my 1972 edition of Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, I found listings for five women out of 1195 biographies. (I had to go through the entire book page by page to count the women because there are no index entries for female, woman, or any other synonym.) Checking the 1982 edition at the library, I found 308 more men and 7 more women compared to the edition published a decade earlier.
This is not a trivial issue. In stories of individual lives and in conclusions of education research studies, role models have been shown to be of immense importance in girls’ and women’s decisions to learn science.
Evidence of women scientists comes from as long ago as 4000 BC., when a carving of an unnamed Sumerian priestess-physician was made. Written records exist about Egyptian female physicians such as Merit Ptah from 2700 BC. and Zipporah from 1500 BC. Ancient Egyptian women could attend medical school with males or attend an exclusively female school at Sais. Tapputi-Belatikallim worked with chemicals used for perfume production in Mesopotamia around 1200 BC.
At 600 BC. due to the flowering of Greek science, the number of women recorded per century in historical documents increased about fifty fold to twenty per century. That ratio stayed relatively constant for the next twelve centuries. Women were treated equal to men in the Pythagorean Community, Plato’s Academy, and the Epicurean School. Theano probably married Pythagorus when he was an old man; she was the leader of his school after he died. Agnodice in 300 BC. was a successful doctor dressed as a man. When she was to be tried for illegal practice, protests by the women she had healed resulted in changing the law so women could be physicians who treated only women. In Rome, female physicians were numerous and were allowed to treat men. In the First or Second Century, Maria of Alexandria, also called Mary the Jewess, was an alchemist who invented the water bath, the three-armed still, and other chemical equipment. The last great scientist of antiquity was Hypatia, who was born in 370 AD. Following the pattern set by her father, she lectured at the University of Alexandria in mathematics and astronomy. She invented the plane astrolabe for measuring positions of stars and planets, an apparatus for distilling water, and the hydrometer for determining the density of liquids. She was murdered in 415 AD by a Christian mob trying to stamp out Platonism.