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How Anna Atkins blazed a garden path for women to sneak into science

Like many women in the sciences, Anna Atkins, celebrated Monday on Google's search page, entered her field by focusing on illustrations.

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    On Monday, Google's home page celebrated trailblazing botanist and photographer Anna Atkins.
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Many women in science today are still coming into their fields through the garden gate opened by English botanist and photographer Anna Atkins, subject of today’s Google Doodle, who may have been the first person to publish a book illustrated with photographic images.

Today the Google Doodle celebrates what would have been Ms. Atkins's 216th birthday.

“While there’s been a huge change in science where women are concerned, it all started with botany and women like Anna Atkins,” Vicki Funk, a research scientist at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History’s Botany Department. “Somebody’s got to break the ice for women in science, and frequently it’s in botany.”

Atkins was a trowelblazer, not just an accomplished scientific illustrator, but perhaps, some say, the first woman to create a photograph.

Born in 1799, Atkins began her career as an assistant to her father, the zoologist and chemist John Children.

“Trained as a botanist, Anna Atkins developed an interest in photography as a means of recording botanical specimens for a scientific reference book, British Algae: Cyanotype Impression,” notes the Getty Museum website.

Atkins, much like celebrated botanical illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian (1647–1717) before her, had a passion for the sciences at a time when women were relegated to amateur status by the male-dominated scientific community.

Both Atkins and Merian paved the way for Katherine Esau (born 1898) a botanist who became the 5th woman inducted to the National Academy of Sciences

“When I started here [at the Smithsonian] 33 years ago I was one of only two women in the entire building,” Dr. Funk says. “Today more than half the staff are women. However, one thing has not changed since the days of Anna Atkins and that is that every major botanical garden in the world is still run by a man. No woman has ever been the director of a major botanical garden.”

In an email interview with the Monitor, Natural History Museum London bioarchaeologist Brenna Hassett writes, “There is a long tradition of women being involved in the sciences without necessarily having the recognition of being scientists themselves.”

Dr. Hassett points out that many of the positions open to women in science in the past would have been restricted to entry-level or “technician type jobs, despite the obvious expertise required illustration and cataloging of finds have both been standard positions for women in many of the Earth sciences.”

“Many women's contributions are acknowledged informally, and appear in the historical record only in the forewards and dedications to academic publications by spouses or supervisors,” Hassett writes.

Today, according to Hassett, “While the sciences still struggle to recruit and retain women, it is possible to identify successful female scientists at all career stages, in many different disciplines.”

Last week Hassett and the female scientists' organization she helps run, TrowelBlazers, made global news with a Twitter campaign hashtagged #InMyShoes to help a little girl in England convince Clarks Shoe company to expand its traditional selection of girls shoes to include ones with dinosaurs on them.

Asked about the campaign, and of the irony of flowers being both a place of deep roots for women in science and an image often rejected as perhaps too girly for modern female scientists, Hassett writes, “I suppose that must depend on what is considered 'science'; while botany is obviously a science I imagine that flowers per se don't stir up the same association with the amorphous entity that is 'science' in the same way dinosaurs do. Presumably because dinosaurs are rather thinner on the ground...”

Norfolk State University’s Research Director and STEM educator Camellia Moses Okpodu says that women still struggle against a male-dominated scientific community to advance and be recognized.

"While women may have gained advances in holding higher positions and gaining recognition in the sciences since Anna Atkins’ time, we are making greater family sacrifices to get them," says Dr. Okpodu. She says, “Men in science today often tell me they see a woman in science having a child as inhibiting her success. If you want a child you're not seen as being serious about being a scientist since much of your work coincides with your child-bearing years."

"One thing was that nobody would dream of making a woman in Atkins's day feel was that she couldn’t or shouldn’t be a mother because she wanted to also make a contribution to science,”Okpodu concludes. "So how far have we come really? Today's a good day to think about that."

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