Review: Jessica Whiteon Jane Carey

Prevailing Passions

Georgiana Molloy, one of the first wadjelas (white people) to encroach on Wardandi Noongar country in the nineteenth century, collected seeds and specimens for Captain James Mangles, a botanical connoisseur living in London. In 1840 she wrote to him, ‘I discovered a plant I have been almost panting for, a very small neat white blossom, on a furze looking Bush’. Molloy’s use of the verb ‘panting’ indicates the depths of her obsessive acquisitiveness, which was informed by a nexus of loneliness, boredom, and her ‘prevailing passion for Flowers’ (as she described it in another letter of 1840), as well as the wider colonial project of collecting.  

Molloy is the first case study in Jane Carey’s Taking to the Field: A History of Australian Women in Science, a detailed compilation of post-invasion archives and historical records that document Australian women’s participation in science. Molloy’s sometimes fevered descriptions of collecting for Mangles reveal her ardour for botany. As Carey illustrates, Molloy was just one among numerous women involved in science since colonisation. Their engagement challenges the prevailing Whiggish assumption that conditions for women were worse in the past (whether in the field of science or more generally). ‘What new understandings of women and science might emerge’ Carey asks, ‘if we start from the premise of women’s presence rather than their absence?’  

In answering this question, Carey creates a chronological narrative, beginning with the early years of colonisation and moving towards the 2000s. She acknowledges that ‘Indigenous women and men were, and continue to be, the holders of vast knowledge of the Australian continent’, but her research centres largely around the academy and its education of women scientists. It also delves into natural history, science education in schools, and domestic science, and draws on a range of methods, including archival research, statistical analysis, and oral histories. While Carey captures a range of valuable information, the effect of aggregating these methods is a sometimes chunky text in which the narrative doesn’t always flow. Perhaps this mirrors the fact that Australian women’s progress in science has not been linear. 

In the opening vignette of the Introduction, Carey compares the media’s response to Elizabeth Blackburn’s 2009 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine to the lack of fanfare for the first woman to graduate from a science degree, Edith Emily Dornwell – a comparison that encapsulates Australian culture’s responses to women scientists. In 1885, ‘there was no suggestion that Dornwell’s entry into science was inappropriate, or in any way undesirable, for a member of her sex’. Rather, ‘[i]n line with South Australia’s image as an enlightened colony, her graduation was rather a matter of pride for the university – proof of its modern, progressive status’. By contrast, when Blackburn won the Nobel Prize, the media assumed that she had emerged from nowhere, and their celebration ‘focussed not on her scientific work but on her gender, and especially her place as a pioneer for women in the field’. They did not reference the ‘long and significant history of Australian women’s scientific endeavours’ which paved the way for Blackburn’s research.  

As Carey recounts, Australian women were heavily involved in colonial science. Indeed science and colonisation were twinned, with scientific enquiry focussed on the ‘discovery’ of ‘new’ countries and their flora and fauna. In the nineteenth century, women participated in fields such as botany, anthropology, zoology and geography. Science at this time was a largely amateur affair referred to as ‘natural history’. The term ‘scientist’, as Carey notes, ‘was only coined in 1839, and even then the number of people employed in science as a full-time, paid occupation was extremely small’. Consequently, the majority of scientists at this time were amateurs, sending their specimens back to Britain and Europe.  

While natural history had a strong masculine culture, stemming from its association with exploration and hunting on the frontier, women were enthusiastic participants in and consumers of science, gravitating to the forums and fields they could access as active discussants and practitioners. The Royal Institution in Britain admitted women upon its inception in 1799. The British Association for the Advancement of Science, founded in 1831, did not, but women ‘turned up to its meetings in their hundreds, forcing the rule to be rescinded by 1837’. Carey also refers to the way that natural history was often a family enterprise. As Ann Shteir has noted in Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science, this was a more culturally acceptable way for women to practise science because their work remained in the private sphere. Molloy, for example, took her daughters on collecting expeditions to educate them about science, writing to Mangles that ‘their eyes being so much nearer the ground they have been able to detect many minute specimens and seeds I cou’d not observe’. 

Carey introduces Molloy in Chapter One, ‘“Of Great Use to Science”: Women and Colonial Scientific Discovery’ (puzzlingly, she recommends that readers consult William Lines’ 1994 biography for further information on Molloy, rather than the meticulously researched 2015 biography by Bernice Barry). Molloy emigrated to south-west Western Australia from Carlisle in 1829 and began collecting seeds and specimens for Mangles, cousin to the Swan River governor’s wife. She was one of an elite group of women whose privilege afforded them access to the education and materials necessary for collecting. Others included Fanny Macleay, the main scientific assistant to her father, Alexander Macleay, Colonial Secretary of NSW from 1829. Her father was interested in entomology and botany; working alongside him, Fanny illustrated, recorded and stored specimens. 

Carey also canvasses natural history illustrators such as the Scott sisters, Harriet and Helena, who created gorgeous and detailed depictions of insects, and Ellis Rowan, who became famous for her botanical illustrations. Her study includes the writers Louisa Meredith and Louisa Atkinson, both connected to the botanist Ferdinand von Mueller, who commissioned numerous women to collect for him. Each of these women, through their artistic and literary practice, made close observations of the natural world, some of which were new contributions to scientific knowledge.  

In collecting specimens of flora, fauna, and minerals, women not only advanced their own scientific interests, but also participated in dispossession, renaming, massacre, and displacement in the name of imperial aspirations. Like other naturalist historians, such as ornithologist John Gould, they also relied on First Nations guides whose efforts were rarely acknowledged. Molloy’s husband was involved in a massacre of the Wardandi Noongar people who had contributed to her collections, while the taxonomies women scientists used overwrote First Nations’ names for plants, animals, and weather, contributing to a loss of knowledge about the specific connections between language and place. Meredith included derogatory accounts of First Nations peoples in her writing on Tasmania. Anthropologist Daisy Bates, who travelled and camped alongside First Nations communities, propagated the dying race theory in her writings and made false claims about cannibalism and infanticide. Science in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was knotted into, and supported, the colonial project. 

Women’s amateur participation in science was restricted as the field became increasingly professionalised towards the end of the nineteenth century, as Carey highlights in her second chapter, ‘Pioneers: Studying Science 1880–1920’. An ‘exemplary’ naturalist, Georgina King was trying to publish her geological research at a time when amateurs were becoming excluded, particularly by the increasing numbers of men with formal scientific training who sought to ‘enhance the status of the field’. Undaunted, women’s thirst for science saw them enrolling in university science courses from their inception. Dornell became Australia’s first woman science graduate (and the first woman to graduate from the University of Adelaide) in 1885, the first year that science degrees were awarded in Australia. While women were only able to enter universities in Britain after vigorous campaigning, reforms passed without the same resistance in Australia, which was not weighed down by tradition in the same way and sought to present itself as a modern, progressive nation. Between 1880 and 1881, women were admitted to Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide universities, and were part of the University of Tasmania from its founding in 1890. 

In tandem with their enrolments at university, women also participated in scientific societies, which were more welcoming than before, forming their own clubs and societies. Whether this indicates progress depends how you look at it. For Carey, women’s increasing presence in the study of science was not only because of interest and availability, ‘it also reflected the unpopularity of science among male undergraduates’ (emphasis Carey’s). The small numbers of enrolments also reflected science’s lower standing. More well-established arts courses had more prestige, and studying the classics was seen to be ‘the apex of intellectual endeavour’. Women sought to participate in science where they could find an opening for their ardour. 

In this chapter, Carey highlights women’s scientific achievements in tertiary institutions. The focus on historical case studies in the previous chapter is replaced by an inventory of names, facts, and dates in a series of institutional landmarks from 1880 to 1920. For example, at the University of Sydney, Fanny Hunt became the second woman graduate in science after Dornwell. Ada Lambert began her science degree in 1891 and won a suite of prizes and scholarships. Georgiana Sweet was awarded a Doctor of Science in 1904, the first woman to gain a doctorate in any field in Australia (and the fifth in the country to receive this degree). While the catalogue of achievements is both valuable and voluminous, it’s difficult to tether these distinguishing details to a consistent narrative, and my attention in this chapter began to drift. As Carey notes, few of these women ‘left behind any substantial personal papers, making them difficult to know’.  

The first women graduates became the first women academics, as Carey recounts in Chapter Three, ‘Taking on the Profession: Women Working in Science, 1900–1920s’, with Ada Lampert appointed the first woman university lecturer in 1899. As science units expanded, so did the number of positions that women took, challenging the idea that the humanities have traditionally been more accommodating of women. Sometimes women’s increasing presence was seen as a ‘problem’, with some male science professors apprehensive about the reputation of their discipline, but women were nonetheless recruited because of the scarcity of qualified men, particularly in the biological sciences. Women were consistently paid less than men in the same position and often denied promotion. Georgiana Sweet, even with substantial support, was promoted to associate professor, but no further. It was believed that women, even if they had extensive expertise in their fields, did not have the physical stamina or sense of responsibility to carry out leadership roles. In addition to these challenges, marriage often cut short a woman’s career. 

Women were not involved solely in academic science. From the 1890s to the 1940s, as Carey recounts in Chapter Four, ‘Making a Better World? Women and the (Racial) Science of Social Reform’, women with scientific qualifications participated in reform movements. Historians of science have long argued that both the idea of science and the figure of the scientist are shaped by the culture in which they are embedded (what Lorraine Daston calls a ‘moral economy’, ‘a balanced system of emotional forces’ that drive and legitimate scientific activity). In this case, and with intricate detail, Carey reveals how, in the context of early twentieth-century Australia, the pseudoscience of eugenics was moulded by the advancement of nationalism and the White Australia policy. Women, as ‘mothers of the race’, played a prominent role in these ideologies. Through groups, such as the Racial Hygiene Association of NSW and national and state-based Councils of Women, and through sex and birth-control education, white, middle-class women found space ‘not only to engage with the modern scientific age, but to claim authority within it’. They recommended the collection of anthropometric data to guide the design of the future Australian race, the training and treating of defective children, the establishment of kindergartens, and the segregation and sterilisation of those who were ‘unfit’. 

Carey observes that there were women who ‘could not lay claim to the power of science and were more likely to be regarded as the needy recipients of expertise and instruction of scientific women of the middle classes’. There was, then, a class-based tension in the conversations and leadership of social reform between the repressive nature of eugenicists’ efforts to prevent reproduction by ‘unfit’ mothers and the seemingly progressive authority afforded the white women who had the privilege of entering the field more easily than others. As a researcher of nineteenth-century Social Darwinism’s implications for deaf people, and as a disabled person aware of the Aktion T4 campaign to sterilise and eliminate disabled people prior to the Holocaust, I found this chapter both engagingly new and repellently familiar.  

From the 1930s to the 1950s, as Carey recounts in Chapter Five, ‘Neither Rebels nor Radicals: Studying and Working in Science’, women’s involvement in science in universities reached its peak, with geologist Dorothy Hill becoming Australia’s first woman professor in 1959. Science’s increasing importance during the Second World War meant that women scientists were in demand, a circumstance which continued after the war’s end. As in the early twentieth century, the scarcity of men allowed women to flourish. Women’s pleasure in the expanding fields of science, as well as their sense of the privilege of their involvement with science, is acknowledged through interviews with over 300 women science graduates that Carey conducted in the 1990s. Despite the immediacy these interviews brought to the text which, the welter of names and statistics made it challenging for me to remember who each woman was and what she achieved. At the same time, the sheer number of names reinforces Carey’s thesis that women scientists are excluded and silenced by the inaccurate assumption of their historical absence – an assumption that reinforces the dominant narrative whereby science is associated with masculinity. It also makes Carey’s documentation of the years from 1940 to 1960 in her sixth chapter, ‘A Profession for Men: The Transformation of Australian Science’, particularly depressing to read. 

Carey reiterates that science did not begin as, but was transformed into, an exclusively male domain in Australia as the result of ‘a conscious and active historical process’ in which ‘women’s earlier strong presence was rendered invisible and even inconceivable’. Women’s concentration in the biological sciences became a disadvantage, as the physical sciences became more dominant, with the expansion of university physics and chemistry departments, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) (renamed CSIRO, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, in 1949), and industrial laboratories. Rather than taking place within universities (as it did prior to the war), postwar scientific research shifted to the CSIRO, in which women made up only approximately ten per cent of all staff from 1930 to 1950. Meanwhile in universities, women staff dropped from twenty per cent in 1950 to eleven per cent five years later.  

Carey’s conclusion, titled ‘Where Did All the Women Go?’, reports how, in the 1980s, attempts were made to redress the woeful decline in women’s participation in science through a range of organisations (many, Carey notes, founded by women scientists) and government programs. There have been some notable recent success stories. For example, internationally recognised plant geneticist Adrienne Clarke was chair of CSIRO from 1991 to 1996 (a nice change given the organisation’s antipathy to women when it was still the CSIR), and became Laureate Professor of Botany at Melbourne University from 1999 to 2005. Three years later, Penny Sackett, director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Australian National University, became Australia’s chief scientist. 

Carey ends in the early 2000s, with only a few closing references to the first two decades of this century. She indicates that the hard-won gains of women’s position in science in Australia remain precarious. This is underscored by recent research by astrophysicist Lisa Kewley into the gender gap in Australian astronomy. Kewley shows that if the status quo remains unchanged, the fraction of women employed at all levels in astronomy will be below thirty per cent for the next sixty years. In recognition of the importance of gender parity, in 2017 the ARC Centre of Excellence for All Sky Astrophysics in 3D (ASTRO 3D) established a range of initiatives, including targets, selection of leaders, and training. Within five years they had increased women’s membership from thirty-eight to fifty per cent. As the centre’s director Professor Emma Ryan-Weber notes, gender parity means better research, because it ‘reduces the risk of bias and groupthink, which can affect the validity and reliability of scientific findings’, while diversity ‘can lead to more innovative and creative solutions to scientific problems, as people from different backgrounds bring unique insights to the table’. 

While gender parity has obvious benefits, for women from under-represented backgrounds, finding a seat at the table is not always straightforward. In First Knowledges Astronomy: Sky Country, Gamilaraay astronomer and science communicator Karlie Noon and Kamilaroi educator and astrophysicist Krystal de Napoli recount how difficult it can be to make headway in the sciences. Encountering racism and disinterested teachers, Noon left her high school and devised her own education plan that allowed her to flourish in maths, enter university, and become the first First Nations woman to graduate with a double degree in maths and physics. As Noon writes, ‘it’s not a nice statistic. I should be the thousandth, especially considering the scientific foundations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples’. After graduating, Noon began to work with Dr Duane Hamacher of the Australian Indigenous Astronomy Project on the way that moon halos (bright rings caused by moonlight’s refraction of ice crystals), which appear often in Aboriginal and Torres Strait oral traditions, can assist with weather predictions. The synergy between Noon’s science and culture was immensely positive for her, and she has made it her mission to ‘encourage people from under-represented backgrounds to consider themselves potential scientists’. Her progression is another example of the tenacity that is required, particularly in the face of racism and classism, to access an education in science in the twenty-first century. 

The scope of Carey’s research – reaching across archives, university records, interviews, biographies and memoirs – is thorough and impressive. However, for a book about women’s overwhelming desire to engage with science where they could, there are, surprisingly, few references to ardour.  In the chapter on late nineteenth-century women scientists, Carey refers to newspaper accounts of Georgina Sweet and Stella Deakin, and a memoir from Hilda Cleminson, which reveal the ‘intense excitement, commitment and privilege these early women in science felt’. At other times, I could only arrive at a sense of women’s scientific passions by deduction, that is, by reading of their persistence and ingenuity in trying different avenues to practise science. Given the weight of documentation in this book, one could argue that it is filled with passion, and yet I yearned for more immediate accounts.  

Perhaps this is a product of contemporary scientific enquiry. To return to Daston:  

Because science in our culture has come to exemplify rationality and facticity, to suggest that science depends in essential ways upon highly specific constellations of emotions and values has the air of proposing a paradox. Emotions may fuel scientific work by supplying motivation, values may infiltrate scientific products as ideology or sustain them as institutionalised norms, but neither emotions nor values intrude upon the core of science – such are the boundaries that these habitual oppositions would seem to dictate.  

From Molloy’s fevered collecting of plants, to Elizabeth Blackburn’s Nobel Prize win, to de Napoli and Noon’s combination of traditional knowledge with science, Australian women have ‘taken to the field’ in both helpful and harmful ways. While Carey’s book does not explicitly articulate their passion, and while its narrative structure may limit its appeal to a broad audience, it remains a piece of powerful testimony to Australian women’s thirst for scientific knowledge. 

Works Cited

  • Barry, Bernice. The Mind that Shines. Redgate Consultants, 2015. 
  • Daston, Lorraine. (1995). The Moral Economy of Science. Osiris, 10, 2–24. 
  • Hofstra, B., Kulkarni, V. V., Galvez, S. M.-N., He, B., Jurafsky, D., & McFarland, D. A. (2020). The Diversity–Innovation Paradox in Science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences – PNAS, 117(17), 9284–9291. 
  • Kewley, L. J. (2021). Closing the gender gap in the Australian astronomy workforce. Nature Astronomy, 5(6), 615–620. 
  • Lines, William. An All Consuming Passion: Origins, Modernity, and the Australian Life of Georgiana Molloy. Allen and Unwin, 1994. 
  • Molloy, Georgiana. Letters to James Mangles, 1840. James Mangles letter books. Battye Library, State Library WA, ACC 479A. 
  • Noon, Karli and de Napoli, Krystal. First Knowledges Astronomy: Sky Country. Thames and Hudson, 2022. 
  • Ryan-Weber, Emma. (2023). In 5 years, this Australian astrophysics lab reached 50% women. Here’s how they did it. The Conversation
  • Shteir, Ann. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860.  John Hopkins University Press, 1996.