A femme fatale and a brilliant female scientist

It sounds like the beginning of a joke: A femme fatale and a female scientist walk into a bar….but that’s where the joke ends. Instead of ordering a drink, these two dynamos stand in the center of the room and let all eyes fall on them. The looks that they garner are filled with admiration and awe. Who are these two incredible ladies?

The Femme Fatale

We will first turn our attention to the one with the exotic looks and the knowing smile. The first thing you’ll want to know is that it’s the anniversary of her death today; on October 15th, 1917, Mata Hari (as she was known) was killed by firing squad at the age of 41 (Wikipedia article). She left behind an extremely romantic story of her life, as well as an image of a woman passionately competent and able to design her own destiny in an age where this was typically taboo. Born Margaretha Geertruida “M’greet” Zelle MacLeod on August 7th, 1876, she suffered through an early marriage of disappointment and abuse, ultimately culminating in divorce and the death of her two children (Wikipedia article).

During her marriage, she lived in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and enjoyed the benefits and status of being married to a member of the Dutch military (Wikipedia article). She survived these unhappy years of matrimony by studying the local Indonesian traditions and dancing with a trope of performers; in later years, she adopted the name Mata Hari (meaning sun or “eye of the day” in Indonesian) to represent her artistic aspirations (Wikipedia article). In 1903, free from the requirements of family life, she moved to Paris and performed as a circus horse rider and then an exotic dancer (Wikipedia article). Provocative, sensual, and exotic in her technique and appearance, she quickly gained renown and prominence among the elite (though she was alternately reviled and respected by society) (Wikipedia article).

When World War I broke out, Mata Hari traveled between France and the Netherlands, using her status, position in society, and feminine charms to extract secrets from prominent army personnel (Wikipedia article). Her movements attracted attention and she was arrested in February 1917 and accused of spying for Germany (Wikipedia article). The ‘guilty’ conviction was an inevitability for her, but she died with poise and grace, fashionably dressed as always (Wikipedia article).

The Brilliant Female Scientist

Although Mata Hari left a legacy of her romantic interludes in the chambers of Dutch military men, Barbara McClintock reminds us of the power of intuition, dedication, and perception. Barbara would stand in the center of the of the bar described earlier with a wistful, far-away look in her eyes, the dark wave of her hair brushing over her forehead and touching the tops of her glasses.

Barbara, born June 16th, 1902, received her PhD in botany from Cornell University in 1927 (Wikipedia article). She is one of the world’s most eminent cytogeneticists, and is known for proposing the idea that chromosomes exchange information through genetic recombination by crossing-over during meiosis (Wikipedia article). The focus of her studies was maize.

In the 1940s and 1950s, she developed a theory that suggests genes are responsible for formulating physical characteristics in organisms – i.e. transposition or the “jumping gene” (Wikipedia article). Unfortunately, skepticism of her research meant that she stopped publishing her research until the 1960s and 1970s when it was finally acknowledged that her ideas about genetic change and regulation were in fact correct (Wikipedia article). In 1983 she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for the theory of transposition, and she is the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category (Wikipedia article).

Barbara was an impressive woman for her tenacity and perception while studying the science that elicited her passions and emotions (Wikipedia article). She was described as solitary, independent, and not afraid of getting her hands dirty as a child; traits which contributed to her later pursuits in botany, jazz, and genetics (Wikipedia article). In 1925 she earned her MA and in 1927 she earned her PhD in genetics (both at Cornell University), an uncommon research achievement for a woman (Wikipedia article). Her breakthrough publications were supported by academic grants and scholarships which pushed her through the height of her extensive career (Wikipedia article).

There is some controversy over whether or not Barbara was accepted by her male peers (see A Feeling for the Organism). It was felt that her research methods involved an excess of ‘feelings’ for the organism, which is cited as the reason that she looked through accepted genetic dogma and championed innovative new ways of understanding the very basis of life (A Reader’s Journal, 2009).

Common Advances

So now that the femme fatale and the brilliant female scientist have allowed all eyes to linger on them, they remove to the corner of the bar to chat. What would they talk about? One of them, a woman who defied convention to lead a secret double-life of espionage and intrigue; the other, a woman whose immense intelligence and emotional thinking skills brought about a massive revolution in science. I think that they would both have a few life lessons to impart and reflect on. And they would probably also agree that women in the modern era need to take more chances to push the boundaries of conventionality and knowledge.

Today, October 15th 2013, is Ada Lovelace Day in Victoria Park in downtown Kitchener (see also this Global News article). The event is a celebration of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). I see it as a day to reflect on the contributions of women across time and history, and acknowledge their impressive contributions to our modern society. It’s also a great day to say ‘thank you’ to all the women out there who are currently mentoring and guiding future generations of leaders in everything from international affairs to scientific discoveries. To all of these women, I give a sincere and humble ‘thanks’!


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