CORRESPONDENCE

Hertha Ayrton’s Nature obituary: a monument to sexism in science

The pioneering scientist Hertha Ayrton (1854–1923, born Phoebe Sarah Marks) made contributions to electric arc lighting, sediment transport and much more (see also Nature 511, 25–27; 2014). She was the first woman elected to membership of the Institute of Electrical Engineers and the first proposed for fellowship of the Royal Society, having won its Hadley Medal (it was 102 years before that went to another woman). Being married, she was denied entry. Ayrton held 26 patents and was a passionate activist for women’s rights. As such, her obituary (H. Armstrong Nature 112, 800–801; 1923) is a stain on Nature’s record. Its brazen sexism serves only as a monument to how long and hard women have had to fight for an equal place at the scientific table; and it is anti-Semitic.

This mean anti-eulogy is by someone who knew little of Ayrton or her work. The chemist Henry Armstrong airs doubts about whether women could be scientists and casts aspersions on Ayrton’s originality and intelligence. By striking contrast, other obituaries, such as that in The Guardian (see go.nature.com/2zxb3co), celebrated her remarkable scientific achievement. After a letter of complaint (H. H. Mills Nature 112, 865; 1923), Armstrong, with breathtaking arrogance, chided his critic for “lacking in sense of humour” and requested one correction — to a typographical error.

In my view, the obituary should be retracted. But then, how much else of this vintage should be?

Nature 590, 551 (2021)

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