Nature 407, 833 (19 October 2000) | doi:10.1038/35038251

Careers in science offer women an unusual bonus: immortality

Dean Falk1

  1. Department of Anthropology, University at Albany, Albany, New York 12222, USA


I was alarmed to learn in your Opinion article1 that President Clinton's National Science and Technology Council was "toothless" in its failure to address the shortage of women and minorities in science, technology and engineering, and that this situation could have "devastating" consequences by 2050 for the US economy and scientific leadership2.

An analysis of death notices and obituaries in Nature every 10 years from 1949 to 1999, and in Science every 10 years from 1949 to 1969 (after which it stopped regularly publishing these) suggests a way of increasing the number of women scientists dramatically. As I show here, women scientists rarely die. Once word of this acquired immortality gets out, women should flock to scientific careers.

Of 1,184 obituaries in a three-year period coded for year of publication, sex, age at death, cause of death (if known) and field3, women accounted for 49 of 917 (5.3%) in Science and 13 of 267 (4.9%) in Nature; of the 44 commemorated in both journals, two were women. Science carried 3.43 times more obituaries than Nature; but the proportion of women remained constant at about 5% in each journal.

The dramatic increase in the number of women entering science, technology and engineering during the past 40 years (in which the number of female doctorates has grown at more than twice the rate of that for men, averaging 7.5% per year3) coincided with acquisition of immortality in increasing numbers of these women.

Although women in the physical sciences were represented by 4.8% of the death notices in Science and 8.3% of the obituaries in Nature in 1969, by 1979 there were none — they had become immortal (see Fig. 1). Since women received only 2.2% of US doctorates in engineering by 1978, more time is needed to assess the degree, if any, to which women in this field have acquired immortality. Women in the life sciences started to become immortal in 1979, but immortality is not yet fixed in this group, since one obituary appeared in 1999 — a year after women received 45.4% of the doctorates in that field (see Fig. 1). This trend is also found in other scientific and science-related fields of endeavour.

Figure 1: Percentages of women who received doctorates compared with those who received obituaries.
Figure 1 : Percentages of women who received doctorates compared with those who
received obituaries. Unfortunately we are unable to provide accessible alternative text for this. If you require assistance to access this image, or to obtain a text description, please contact

Red circles, percentages of US doctoral degrees awarded to women during 1968, 1978, 1988 and 1998; blue circles, percentage of death notices for women in Science for 1949, 1959 and 1969; yellow circles, percentages of obituaries for women in Nature for 1949, 1959, 1969, 1979, 1989 and 1999. The numerator of fractions provides the number of obituaries for women; the denominator represents the total number of obituaries; s, Science; n, Nature.

High resolution image and legend (84K)

The fact that women were featured in some obituaries between 1949 and 1969 for all fields except engineering demonstrates that noteworthy women were contributing to scientific and scholarly endeavours half a century ago. As more females received doctorates over subsequent years, however, the numbers of obituaries for women decreased to zero in the physical sciences, social sciences, education, humanities and other categories. One may therefore conclude that women in these fields no longer die.

The big question, of course, is what are the factors that led to their immortality? Is there a gene that predisposes women scientists to live for ever? If so, I propose the name foy (fountain of youth), and suggest that the researchers at DREADCO look into this.



  1. Nature 404, 795 (2000).
  2. Wadman, M. Nature 404, 800 (2000). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |