Thursday, August 3, 2017


With my latest version of Internet Explorer, I get a gorgeous photo of somewhere on earth every time I log in. The latest one shows a myriad of stars against the night sky and a little factoid in the center of the frame, claiming that only 6.7 percent of women graduate with STEM degrees, STEM referring to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. This leads to a website advocating that girls and young women stay in STEM classes, which you can look at HERE.

The reason I mention it, though, is that I happen to get a newsletter from a website called Brain Pickings, a creation of a human juggernaut by the name of Maria Popova. Lately she has done a couple of great articles related to total solar eclipse, which our planet is due for on August 21st, and which many people in North America will be able to experience in full this time around. (But you have to be in the Path of Totality to have the whole experience.) She has a fascinating article up about a nineteenth century astronomer named Maria Mitchell and her account of the 1879 total solar eclipse. In passing, Popova mentions that:

Mitchell’s choice [of the gender neutral "we"] inclines her reader to the assumption, standard in her era and still lamentably common in ours, that “scientist” defaults to maleness (even though the word itself had been coined for woman thirty-five years earlier).

I thought, Really? But did not more than wonder at it in the moment as I went on to finish the absorbing article. Later, though, I decided to look up the etymology in a separate source, namely the Online Etymology Dictionary:

1834, a hybrid coined from Latin scientia (see science) by the Rev. William Whewell (1794-1866), English polymath, by analogy with artist, in the same paragraph in which he coined physicist (q.v.)

Mary Somerville, by Thomas Phillips, 1834

Which would be interesting enough, seeing that apparently such an important and general word can be pinpointed to  a specific time and person. But what the etymology omits is that the word was coined by Whewell in his description of a woman, one Mary Somerville, whom Popova discusses in a separate article. Somerville was an interdisciplinary researcher, who we may feel a more current connection with because she was the tutor of Ada Lovelace and introduced her to Charles Babbage, with whom Lovelace would go on to collaborate with to invent the world's first computer. According to a quote in the article from RenĂ©e Bergland, the author of a biography on the aforementioned Maria Mitchell:

[Whewell] called Somerville a scientist, in part because “man of science” seemed inappropriate for a woman, but more significantly because Somerville’s work was interdisciplinary. She was no mere astronomer, physicist, or chemist, but a visionary thinker who articulated the connections among the various branches of inquiry. 

Popova adds:

Whewell called Somerville “a person of real science,” as opposed to the mere popularizers of science whom he held in mild disdain. In suggesting the term “scientist,” he emphasized its similarity to how the word “artist” is formed. Indeed, he had recognized in Somerville that singular creative genius of drawing connections between the seemingly disconnected, which is itself an artistic achievement. 

Popova's linked articles on women of science suggest quite a different history than the one many of us think we know. Even a reputable etymology source omits the woman for whom the word scientist was coined, and Popova's articles detail many other omissions in the history of women's scientific achievements. Maybe there would not be such a low percentage of women finishing STEM degrees if there was a broader cultural understanding that, when it comes to science, women have actually been there all along. 

Annular Solar Eclipse January 4, 2011


  1. Amazing and great research Seana! You are a researchist!

  2. Well, it's not really my own research at all, but it is truly amazing that this story isn't better known. Thanks for reading.

  3. Hi Seana, this is very interesting and surprising. As a woman who graduated in chemistry, I had no idea about the roots of the word. However I was aware that the Latin word scientia for science is also feminine.
    When I was at the university about a third of the students were women, now I think it is 50:50. Biology has always been a stronghold of women whereas all engineering subjects still are a male domain. My daughter, BTW, is going to be a physicist.

  4. One additional thought, Science seems often to be figured as a woman, e.g. The Greek godess Athene.

  5. Thank you for the additional information, Eva! I admit that I was so fascinated by the origin of the word scientist that I didn't go back and do my more usual digging into the roots of things. I know more girls and women are getting into the STEM programs, my niece being one of them. So I was a little surprised that if the Internet Explorer statistic I led with is right there is still a lot of room for improvement.

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