Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Marcella Boveri, the unrecognized scientist

For International Women's Day 2016, I'm not going to write about the fact that women face inequality in every nation on Earth, nor that women face a continual barrage of sexism and gender-based violence.

Instead, I'm going to raise from the depths of the male-dominated history of the sciences a woman so impressive that her story reverberates today, more than a hundred and fifty years after she was born.
Marcella O'Grady Boveri, 1863-1950

Marcella O'Grady Boveri was a scientist in the late 1800s and early 1900s. She holds the distinction of being the first woman to graduate from MIT with a concentration in biology, one of the first female science professors at Vassar College, and she is also an unrecognized contributor to the Sutton-Boveri chromosomal theory of inheritance.

If you think women are lacking in the sciences today, consider what it was like when Marcella was applying to do her doctoral studies in biology in 1887, when women were neither encouraged to enter nor accepted into such programs.

I happened upon Marcella's name in some work-related research about the history of cancer. One of the first scientists who ever proposed that cancer was caused by a single cell's abnormality was the German zoologist Theodor Boveri, and the only reason he did -- and that anyone knows about it -- is because of his wife, Marcella.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to Marcella's story.

Marcella taught biology at Bryn-Mawr College and later at Vassar. In 1896, she journeyed to Germany to study in the all-male science department at the University of Wurzburg -- again, the first woman to do so -- and worked with the head of the zoological department, Dr. Theodor Boveri.

Theodor was studying chromosomal theory of genetic inheritance at the time, and was less than thrilled to learn that a woman was joining him. He didn't think women belonged in the sciences in higher education. (What a pig, right? )

He changed his tune quickly, however. According to this short biography about Marcella written by Margaret Wright, it was soon after Marcella's arrival that Theodor could hardly contain himself around the brilliant scientist. He wrote to a family member that "I now have an American lady zoologist in the institute, and she is not really pretty, but quite attractive. I enjoy her company and must sometimes restrain myself: she does not care for frivolity."

Lab experiments on sea urchins, apparently, made quite the romantic backdrop. The two married at the end of the year.

Marcella worked on Boveri's theories with him for the remainder of his life, though she was not credited with the same achievements awarded to her husband. She researched alongside her husband to prove the theory of chromosomal inheritance, yet she was unrecognized as a contributing researcher.

She also translated a paper titled The Origin of Malignant Tumors written by Theodor Boveri in which he postulated that cancer was caused by abnormal behavior in cells. Marcella was, in essence, offering up to the scientific community a study that was far ahead of its time, which was subsequently proven through the discovery of oncogenes and cytogenetic studies. Again, she was never recognized, though she'd assisted in her husband's research, translated his work after his death, and advocated for the theory. Her name remains absent on the historic document, just as it did for his discovery of chromosomal inheritance.

Marcella Boveri, you were one hell of a strong woman.

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