Kristine Bonnevie, Tine Tammes and Elisabeth Schiemann in Early Genetics: Emerging Chances for a University Career for Women

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Abstract

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the emergence of the discipline of genetics. It is striking how many female scientists were contributing to this new field at the time. At least three female pioneers succeeded in becoming professors: Kristine Bonnevie (Norway), Elisabeth Schiemann (Germany) and the Tine Tammes (The Netherlands). The question is which factors contributed to the success of these women's careers? At the time women were gaining access to university education it had become quite the norm for universities to be sites for teaching and research. They were still expanding: new laboratories were being built and new disciplines were being established. All three women benefited from the fact that genetics was considered a new field promising in terms of its utility to society; in the case of Tammes and Schiemann in agriculture and in the case of Bonnevie in eugenics. On the other hand, the field of genetics also benefited from the fact that these first female researchers were eager for the chance to work in science and wanted to make active contributions. They all worked and studied in environments which, although different from one another, were positive towards them, at least at the start. Having a patron was generally a prerequisite. Tammes profited from her teacher's contacts and status. Bonnevie made herself indispensable through her success as a teacher and eventually made her position so strong that she was no longer dependent on a single patron. The case of Schiemann adds something new; it shows the vulnerability of such dependency. Initially, Schiemann's teacher had to rely on the first generation of university women simply because he was unable to attract ambitious young men to his institute. In those early, uncertain years of the new discipline, male scientists tended to choose other, better established, and more prestigious disciplines. However, when genetics itself had become an established field, it also became more attractive to men. Our case studies also demonstrate that a new field at first relatively open to women closes its doors to them once it becomes established. © 2007 Springer Science+Business Media, B.V.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)427-446
JournalJournal of the history of Biology
Volume40
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 2007

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