Occasionally, instead of a lecture or a discourse, the Royal Institution stages a short play in the Faraday Theatre. Last October, for example, I saw Juliet Aykroyd’s gripping play The Ostrich and the Dolphin, about the relationship between Charles Darwin and Robert FitzRoy during their voyage on the Beagle, and how The Origin of the Species subverted FitzRoy’s beliefs later in his life.
The play dealt with ‘Bateson’s Ladies’, a group of women scientists working with William Bateson on the genetics of snapdragons at the turn of the twentieth century; William Bateson is best known as the champion of Mendelian genetics, and was the first to use the word ‘genetics’; he also, along with Francis Darwin, championed women’s education at Cambridge.
Up until 1948 women were unable to obtain degrees from Cambridge University. They might be suffered to attend lectures, albeit perhaps sitting at the back or in the gallery, they might get a good pass in their exams, but they wouldn’t get a degree.
There had been a vote to allow women to be admitted to degrees at Cambridge in 1897: special trains were run, graduates who were voting against were offered free food and lodging; the vote was 138 for, 1085 against; an effigy of a woman on a bicycle was hung from a building, and was later beheaded; there was what can only be described as riotous behaviour, and Cambridge was ‘saved’.
As a modern parallel to Bateson’s Ladies, Syreeta Kumar played a modern geneticist, with Liz Rothschild as her lab technician and several of the ‘ladies’ – Muriel Onslow (author of Practical Plant Biochemistry), Rose Scott Moncrieff, Rebecca Saunders, and Bateson’s wife Beatrice, among others.
Very little is known of most of these women’s lives or work, some more than others: Rebecca Saunders got a First Class pass at Cambridge, was the first female president of the Botanical Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, and was awarded the Banksian Medal by the Royal Horticultural Society, but couldn’t borrow a library book from Cambridge University as she had no degree. She was killed in a bicycle accident aged 80 and all her notes and slides were inexplicably destroyed.
There was a modern sub-plot woven through – Syreeta Kumar’s character Adi is waiting for a phone call with the result of a test for Huntingdon’s Disease, a neurodegenerative disorder, to show the importance of the Ladies’ work: modern genetic testing is directly descended from the work they did.
I enjoyed the play very much. There’s a performance from Norwich available to watch at the John Innes website My only reservation was about the several occasions when the play broke off for the cast to question the audience: we would be asked, for instance, ‘who likes patterns?’, ‘who’s been to Majorca?’, and I found this a little distracting, breaking my suspension of disbelief; possibly this aspect is more suited to an audience of school parties?
The audience was predominantly female – I did a rough head count and it was about 7:2 female:male; this is very different from a usual Ri audience which usually has a male majority, and there also appeared to be very few of the usual Ri attendees tonight, which is a shame.
The play finished on the interesting question ‘What would science look like if half of scientists were women?’