A Lab of One's Own

Science and Suffrage in the First World War

Patricia Fara

A Lab of One's Own

Science and Suffrage in the First World War

Patricia Fara






18 Jan 2018




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Many extraordinary female scientists, doctors, and engineers tasted independence and responsibility for the first time during the First World War. How did this happen? Patricia Fara reveals how suffragists, such as Virginia Woolf's sister, Ray Strachey, had already aligned themselves with scientific and technological progress, and that during the dark years of war they mobilized women to enter conventionally male domains such as science and medicine. Fara tells the stories of women such as: mental health pioneer Isabel Emslie, chemist Martha Whiteley, a co-inventor of tear gas, and botanist Helen Gwynne Vaughan. Women were now carrying out vital research in many aspects of science, but could it last?

Though suffragist Millicent Fawcett declared triumphantly that 'the war revolutionised the industrial position of women. It found them serfs, and left them free', the outcome was very different. Although women had helped the country to victory and won the vote for those over thirty, they had lost the battle for equality. Men returning from the Front reclaimed their jobs, and conventional hierarchies were re-established even though the nation now knew that women were fully capable of performing work traditionally reserved for men.

Fara examines how the bravery of these pioneer women scientists, temporarily allowed into a closed world before the door clanged shut again, paved the way for today's women scientists. Yet, inherited prejudices continue to limit women's scientific opportunities.


Preserving the Past, Facing the Future
1: Snapshots: Suffrage and Science at Cambridge
2: A Divided Nation: Class, Gender, and Science in Early Twentieth-Century Britain
3: Subjects of Science: Biological Justifications of Women's Status
Abandoning Domesticity, Working for the Vote
4: A New Century: Voting for Science
5: Factories of Science: Women Work for War
6: Ray Costelloe / Strachey: The Life of a Mathematical Suffragist
Corridors of Science, Crucibles of Power
7: Scientists in Petticoats: Women and Science Before the War
8: A Scientific State: Technological Warfare in the Early Twentieth Century
9: Taking Over: Women, Science and Power During the War
10: Chemical Campaigners: Ida Smedley and Martha Whiteley
Scientific Warfare, Wartime Welfare
11: Soldiers of Science: Scientific Women Fighting on the Home Front
12: Scientists in Khaki: Mona Geddes and Helen Gwynne-Vaughan
13: Medical Recruits: Scientists Care for the Nation
14: From Scotland to Sebastopol: The Wartime Work of Dr Isabel Emslie Hutton
Citizens of Science in a Post-War World
15: Inter-War Normalities: Scientific Women and Struggles for Equality
16: Lessons of Science: Learning from the Past to Improve the Future


Patricia Fara , Fellow, Clare College, Cambridge

Patricia Fara lectures in the history of science at Cambridge University, where she is a Fellow of Clare College. She is the President of the British Society for the History of Science (2016-18) and her prize-winning book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (OUP, 2009), has been translated into nine languages. In addition to many academic publications, her popular works include Newton: The Making of Genius (Columbia University Press, 2002), An Entertainment for Angels (Icon Books, 2002), Sex, Botany and Empire (Columbia University Press, 2003), and Pandora's Breeches: Women, Science and Power in the Enlightenment (Pimlico, 2004). An experienced public lecturer, Patricia Fara appears regularly in TV documentaries and radio programmes such as In our Time. She also contributes articles and reviews to many journals, including History Today, BBC History, New Scientist, Nature and the Times Literary Supplement.