8 Mar 2017

The 'hidden figures' of New Zealand science

From Nine To Noon, 11:45 am on 8 March 2017

Today is International Women's Day, a day to celebrate the contributions of women and to highlight the fight for gender parity across the world.

To mark the occasion, Siouxsie Wiles talks to Kathryn Ryan about the role of women in science in New Zealand.

She says the recent US film Hidden Figures has highlighted the hidden contributions of African-American women to the space race.

Dr Wiles says there are plenty of other ‘hidden figures’ in science, particularly in New Zealand.

Rosemary Askin became the first New Zealand woman to undertake her own research programme in Antarctica in 1970.

Rosemary Askin became the first New Zealand woman to undertake her own research programme in Antarctica in 1970. Photo: Wikicommons: Rosie Askin

Rosemary Askin (1949-)

“Rosemary… was a geologist who became the first New Zealand woman to undertake her own research programme in Antarctica in 1970 when she was just in her early twenties.”

She was interested in looking at fossilised pollen and spores, looking at how that vegetation has changed over time.

“She was also a member of the research team that discovered the first mammal fossils in Antarctica.”

There is also a mountain in Antarctica - Mount Askin in the Darwin Mountains.

Constance Helen Frost (1862-1920)

Dr Frost came to NZ from England as a teenager. She graduated from the University of Otago Medical School in 1900.

“Apparently her and her friend went off to Australia to try and get jobs, but then she came back to New Zealand and set up her own practice as a doctor, but she also became an honorary bacteriologist and pathologist at Auckland Hospital.”

She was the second only woman to hold that position.

“For most of the time that she was on staff she was the only woman doctor there, which kind of seems amazing. But what they did to her was they renewed her honorary appointment every year and apparently they repeatedly looked for a male replacement.”

Dr Frost was only ever appointed when they couldn’t find one.

“Because it was an honorary position it wasn’t paid but she fought for it to be paid… It was in 1918 that they finally made the position full-time and then it was paid and she got paid £500 a year.”

But just two years later, Dr Frost caught the flu while at work in the hospital and died.

Edith Farkas with meteorological instruments at the base during her time in Antarctica.

Edith Farkas with meteorological instruments at the base during her time in Antarctica. Photo: MetService/ Edith Farkas' family

“Her male successor, basically his wages were doubled and it became the second highest paid position in the hospital."

Edith Elizabeth Farkas (1921 - 1993)

Edith Farkas was a New Zealand Antarctic researcher, who emigrated from Hungary in 1949.

“Her work contributed substantially towards the discovery of the 'hole' in the ozone layer.”

Kathleen Curtis, Lady Rigg (1892 - 1994)

“Kathleen… was a mycologist, a fungi expert, and she became the first New Zealand woman to graduate with a DSc, a Doctor of Science, that she got from Imperial College London.

“When she was there she was working on for research on potato wart disease, the disease which didn't appear in New Zealand for 50 years, so she went to London to study."

Lady Kathleen was a founding member of the Cawthorn Institute in Nelson and she was the first person in New Zealand to look at the resistance of plants to disease.

Dr Wiles says we often remember people by the prizes they receive.

While the New Zealand science medals named after women are more likely to be won by women, but it’s much harder for them to win the ones named after men, she says.

Rutherford Medal

New Zealand’s highest honour comes with $100,000 in prize money, for exceptional contribution to science, mathematics, social science or technology.

“That started in 1991 and has been awarded 25 times – only three to women – but it took 20 years for the first woman to win that medal.

“That was Christine Winterbourn for her work on free-radicals.”

Dr Siouxsie Wiles

Dr Siouxsie Wiles says we often recognise scientists for the awards they've won, with women often missing out. Photo: University of Auckland

Hector Medal

Named after James Hector who was involved in forming what became the Royal Society of New Zealand

“100 people have been awarded his medal… just three of them women.

“It took many years, I think 40 years, for the first woman to be awarded and when I read her citation it just made me really cross because it said it was being awarded to Mrs Watson Smith… her name was given in brackets.

“Her name was Lucy Cranwell Smith, but she was named of course by her husband.”

Hercus Medal

The Hercus Medal named for Sir Charles Hercus Dean who was the dean of the Otago University medical school.

The medal began in 1996 to recognise excellence in biomedical and health sciences and has been awarded 11 times – never to a woman.

Hutton Medal

Named in memory of Captain F W Hutton FRS, who was the first President of the New Zealand Institute. The medal is awarded for excellence in earth sciences, plant sciences and animal sciences.

It began in 1911 and three out of recipients are women - the first was Lucy Moore in 1965.


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