Eventually They Recognize Your Genius

I see the Google doodle today is in honor of Dorothy Hodgkin's birthday. They did a good job with the doodle. Very nice. Seeing that prompted me to think of another famous scientist in the world of protein structure, who it just so happens is also female - Jane Richardson. She is currently a James B. Duke Professor of Biochemistry at Duke University.

My time at Duke coincided roughly with the period between shortly after she'd been awarded a MacArthur 'genius' grant in 1985, and the year she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, in 1991. During that time she held, as the Chemical Heritage Foundation notes,

a variety of “invisible” positions as a research assistant, nominally in a variety of departments due to her lack of a doctoral degree and the university’s rules, since discarded, against hiring a husband and wife in the same department.

It only took inventing Richardson diagrams, winning a MacArthur, being elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and the patriarchy's grudging dismantling of the "nepotism" rule,  for Duke to find her suitable for the faculty.  Well, she doesn't have a doctoral degree. So really, Duke was doing her kind of a favor there by granting that exception.

Anyway, eventually they recognize your genius, if you live long enough. Tough luck, Rosalind Franklin. Ladeez: you may not need to depend upon the kindness of husbands to help craft an "invisible" position for you, but do strive to be über-excellent, have good health, and longevity! Then someday, when the d00ds are wondering just why there are no really top-notch women scientists, yours can be one of the names that never comes to their minds!

I feel a particular kind of grudge against Duke for Richardson's years in those "invisible" positions. Although I was a biomedical engineering student, I was working on my dissertation with a biochemistry professor. So most of the time I was in the biochemistry building. I was trying to figure out who was who, what the pecking order was, and where I would fit in, if I could at all. People were still talking about Richardson's MacArthur, and what an amazing scientist she was. A postdoc in my lab who was helping me find my way around warned me not to bother her with any questions at all because she was so incredibly important and busy and besieged by requests from other colleagues and the press, that mere students should never cross her path. And then he explained that she didn't really have any sort of real position, but just kind of worked in this kind of not-faculty not-postdoc not-labtech not-student kind of thingy job.

So, my mind was blown.

The MacArthurs, I had just learned, were for geniuses. You could not apply for them; someone mysteriously deemed you worthy and you were so named a Fellow. It was incredibly prestigious. This woman had won one. She was a genius.

But she had no job. And the university did not say "Hark! Unbeknownst to us, a genius lives amongst us! Let us hasten to beg that she honor us by joining our faculty!" Her official job appeared to me to be something like "scullery maid" while, according to what people were telling me, she was doing genius science.  How to explain the conundrum?

1. Her science was no good, but MacArthur, knowing nothing about science, got hoodwinked into handing out money to her. Everyone likes her now because she has money, and money is necessary to do science. Everyone wants some of the money.

2. Her science was okay, but it was mostly her husband's work, and the MacArthur folks got fooled.

3. See (2), but the MacArthur folks were making some political statement about feminism.

4. Who says the MacArthur awards are a big deal? This postdoc probably doesn't know what he is talking about. Who would give some big award to a woman who doesn't have a real job? Just forget about it, and your brain will stop hurting.

Not long after that, I found Women's Studies at Duke. Then a LOT of things that were murky and mysterious suddenly began to clear up and make a twisted kind of sense. I knew now why the genius was a scullery maid, and why even scullery maids who are geniuses are still not invited into the parlor.

The clarity was bracing, and yet enervating. Why on earth was I laboring away at my stupid little project? I didn't want to be a scullery maid. And yet I knew I was no genius, so if that was what genius got you, what was there for me?  There I was, down the hall from a genuine genius scientist potential female role model, and all I got out of it was abandon hope, all ye who enter here. Ye are come to where ye shall see souls to misery doomed, who intellectual good have lost. No hope but blind life meanly passing, and Fame of the world ye will have none.

That was a bad time. This is why, I think, it's so difficult for women with some privilege to give it up and look at the patriarchy straight on. It's not like feminism is going to make you a cheerful, happy-go-lucky soul and give you tenure, fame, and cash. Cognitive dissonance and denial is bizarrely useful in a purely pragmatically functional way, even given the very high cost one pays to do so. But once you know, you can't unknow. Time to look around for like minds and foment a rebellion.

4 responses so far

  • Busy says:

    The same happened to Julia Robinson a distinguished mathematician. While she didn't particularly desire a full time position someone of her caliber, had it been a male, would have been hired regardless of that e.g. Paul Erdos.

    Where is the redneck backwater of patriarchy which failed to hire her in spite of her numerous accomplishments? UC Berkeley.

    In regard to the no-spouses rule, it still applies in several major universities to this day.

  • 2body says:

    Thx for this. I will never be a genius, but at least it makes me feel less of a failure for being exactly in such a situation. Maybe if I have patience and become a genius, one day I will experience equality to my many male colleagues

  • odyssey says:

    I honestly has no idea regarding Jane's history. She is very much a genius and has made numerous really important contributions. Duke's treatment of her is shameful.

  • wholesale Lions jerseys for sale from china
    cheap NHL china