On Being a Woman: Female Scientist

From the time I was quite young – perhaps ten years of age– I have been enthralled by the way the world works, and I wanted to be a scientist, initially an astronomer. Sometime later – perhaps around age thirteen – I also wanted to become a writer. I struggled with this dual avocation until time to enter college, at which point it became fairly clear that scientists were likely to earn a better income than writers. Since I loved science anyway, I could do that without compromising any inner principles or desires by choosing science over English. Moreover, it seemed that writing could be an avocation, something I might dabble in while working as a scientist.

I did well in science courses in college and received an NIH fellowship to study anatomy at the University of Michigan, where I obtained the M.S. Then the family moved to Syracuse, NY, where my husband had received a stipend to study economics. Eventually, I returned to graduate work in anatomy at S.U.N.Y. Upstate Medical Center and earned the Ph.D. in 1969. I was the only female graduate student in the two departments where I did graduate work. Still, I did well and was respected by peers and most of my professors.

As I was looking for a job during the last year of graduate school, things seemed to become complicated. I only had a couple of interviews, and those were at less prestigious institutions than males cohorts who had not done as well as I had academically, despite the fact that my work was in electron microscopy, the cutting edge of anatomy in the 1960s. One chairman I was introduced to asked bluntly, “What do you think the future of a woman in anatomy would be?” When I replied, “It should be the same as the future of a man,” he snorted and turned away.

I decided to do a post-doctoral fellowship with a research pathologist at Temple University in Philadelphia, investigating the biochemistry of cell replication. So I postponed taking an academic job, hoping that the additional expertise would enhance my value to a future medical school employer.

This training did help me land a job in research pathology, working with Dr. S.S. Spicer, a world renowned histochemist, who had just relocated from NIH to Charleston, SC. The five years in Sam Spicer’s lab were collegial and wonderfully productive. It eventually became clear, however, that unless I found a job in an anatomy department, I would remain a research assistant with little autonomy, regardless of academic title.

By an odd conjunction of circumstances, a job came open in the anatomy department at the medical university, and I was hired by Dr. W. Curtis Worthington, who just yesterday celebrated his 90th birthday. The following is a note of gratitude I wrote to him and inserted into his card.

To W. Curtis Worthington, Jr. on his 90th Birthday

The first few years I lived and worked in Charleston were lucky ones for several reasons. Two of those reasons were the very fine bosses I worked with during that time—Drs. Sam Spicer and Curtis Worthington—men whose character included kindness, integrity, and a love of learning.

I am indeed grateful to Curtis Worthington for hiring me as an Assistant Professor of Anatomy at the Medical University of South Carolina, and for promoting me to Associate Professor the following year. Although Curtis left the helm of the department not long afterwards for duties in upper-level administration, he continued to be involved in departmental functions, including some teaching, as well as its famous Christmas party.

Not too long after I joined the department, Curtis and I created an inter-disciplinary graduate course on the History and Philosophy of Science, sparked by a conversation we had at a meeting of the American Association of Anatomy. The course ran for several years, enjoyed by students and lecturers alike,  both inside and outside the university. This course was an example of a shared impulse: If you see a problem, you should try to fix it. In his manners and his willingness to serve others, Dr. Worthington embodies the best traits of a southern gentleman.

I owe a great deal of my success in research as a histochemist to Sam Spicer, and I credit much of my academic career as professor of anatomy and cell biology to Curtis Worthington. Both of these men were ahead of their time in valuing the contributions of women in the sciences. I will always be grateful to them.


“Woman teaching geometry”

Illustration at the beginning of a medieval translation of Euclid’s Elements (c. 1310 AD)


Posted in Being a Woman, Women and Men, women's health, working mother | Tagged , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Figuring Out Who You Are


Great way to reopen my blogging on this site, by sharing this blog by Fran Moreland Johns, a writer most interested in names and what they signify.

Originally posted on Fran Moreland Johns:

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an…

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Birth Control: Key to Averting Environmental Disaster

This is the last of a three-part series on contraception and women’s health, social well being, and the environment.

The most serious threat to life on Earth is the human population, which has recently surpassed seven billion. SEVEN BILLION. 7,000,000,000. That’s a number the human mind cannot even wrap itself around, although we are physically able to write the digits for it. When I was born, the population was about two billion. It surpassed three billion the year after I graduated from college. And it has been rising steadily since.


When most forecasters of doom and gloom look at potential global disasters, they tend to focus on resource depletion and global warming, or on global war and nuclear disaster. But none of these prospective disasters would be nearly as likely if the world’s human population had stabilized at around one billion. Why was the population at or below a billion for so long? Because the birth rate did not exceed the death rate by much, even after the agricultural revolution some ten thousand years ago.

The major causes of death prior to the nineteenth century were disease, malnutrition and childbirth. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these threats to human life were tackled and largely conquered, with the consequence that the human population has since exploded, straining the very resources that sustain us. Malthus, who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century, foresaw this population crisis, which he predicted would bring about global human collapse, called the Malthusian catastrophe. His predictions were eerily similar to the four horsemen of the apocalypse:

  • conquest (also translated as defeat, destruction, or pestilence),
  • war,
  • famine, and
  • death.


Several human inventions and interventions of the past century have staved off this apocalypse—increased agricultural yield with modern farming and fertilizers; the growth of cities that absorb population vertically rather than horizontally, and medical interventions that limit disease in such highly crowded populations. It seems obvious, however, that the best solution to a Malthusian catastrophe would be to reduce the population—birth control freely available to every woman (and man) on Earth.

Four items listed prominently in a Wikipedia article on potential Global Catastrophe are:

  • warfare and mass destruction,
  • global warming,
  • ecological disaster, and
  • world population and agricultural crisis.

All of these potential catastrophes threaten the biosphere because of excess human population–more humans in a given area than its resources can sustain. Humans may have wiped out as much as a quarter of the species of land mammals by hunting and environmental destruction. More recently, the human plague has taken the form of pesticides, atmospheric toxins, and pollutants that are poisoning insects (and their bird predators), elevating the global temperature, and displacing species from their natural habitat. Collectively this Earth-altering, human activity has defined what some scientists term the Anthropocene epoch.

It is no surprise that a prevalent contemporary literary genre is the dystopian novel (e.g., Cloud Atlas) and that movies on the theme of environmental collapse are common current fare in cinemas (e.g., Interstellar). Moreover, a common exercise of many contemporary futurists is to estimate the year when the earth will no longer be habitable and the human population will collapse.[1] These writers and artists are the prophets of our time, and they are shouting, “Repent!” But, like prophets of old, they are also largely ignored, and the problems they call out are rationalized by those in power.

So now, the population of this planet is nearly four times what it was when I was born. At that time, we were in the middle of the Great Depression, when everything was scarce and the poor were suffering, as they always do. We were considered poor by our neighbors—we had no running water in the house and had heat only from a wood-burning kitchen stove during those fierce Michigan winters. And my mother had more babies than they could afford or at least than my father wanted; birth control—such as it was—was unreliable at best.

One family in the neighborhood seemed to have enough of everything, and more. The boy had lots of toys and they ate well, and the family even threw food away. I remember wondering as a child if there were enough food in the world for me, and if I should even be alive. I had a little chant for those times when I felt deprived. “There must be enough in this world for me. Look at all that others waste.”

Jesus declared that “The poor ye will always have with you,” and those with means should “Give alms to the poor,” Jesus, as far as we know, had no children of his own. In this spirit, the best gift one could give to the poor, and especially to poor women, would be the means of reliable contraception. Childbirth has always been a major cause of death in impoverished women.  Having too many children perpetuates the cycle of poverty and adds to the human destruction of our sustaining mother, Earth.

So, overpopulation could be considered equivalent to matricide. Pope Francis,[2] are you listening? Change that old, ill-advised doctrine of the Catholic Church. Too many children–this is the TRUE plight of the poor, and of the earth itself. Let us save our mothers by offering:


(And to all a good night. And a wonderful holiday)

[1] When I was young, futurists were looking at bright, shiny, exciting futures because they had no idea that resources could become so quickly limited, nor that this shiny future would exact such an environmental cost.

[2] You are my favorite pope. Take this one last step to sainthood and eliminate the church’s doctrine against contraception.

Posted in Being a Woman, Christmas, contraception, environment, social reform, Women and Men, women's health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter

Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter.

I’m interrupting the series on the value of contraception for women, society, and the environment, to reblog this. The link is to a blog post by a woman scientist, and it offers insight into what women in the sciences must endure regularly. As she says elsewhere, it’s a wonder there are any women in the sciences. I am glad to have taken early retirement and to have had a marvelous second life traveling and writing. If I sometimes seem jaded, the above link should help explain why.

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Contraception and Human Social Well-Being


Not only is contraception good for women’s health, it is good for the health of a society, for the well-being of all its citizens.

Humans are social animals and smooth social functioning requires social structures and behavioral specialization, particularly involving group protection and child rearing. In Paleolithic tribal units, comprising between 30 and 150 individuals, interactions within the group were largely motivated by instinctual impulses and behaviors.

The functions of control and caring, essential to group cohesion, tend to be instinctively assumed by males and females, respectively. The steroid, testosterone, and the neuropeptide, arginine-vasopressin (AVP), usually in higher levels in males, promote aggression and the urge to control. By contrast, the steroid, estrogen, and the neuropeptide, oxytocin (OXY), normally higher in females, promote attachment and care-giving behavior.

Prior to the ready availability of contraceptive methods, the life-long preoccupation of women with childbirth and child-rearing robbed society of the wider civilizing force of female caring. Moreover, prior to the 19th century, with little opportunity for education, women had hardly any chance to contribute to the wider social good through political activity.*

In the 19th century, a few educated women instigated a great many of the unprecedented social reforms that took place at the time. Thus, educated women, often eschewing marriage and freed from the bonds of child-bearing and child-rearing, contributed enormously to social welfare in both America and Europe. We who are alive today can hardly imagine the conditions of life endured by those who lived only two centuries ago.

For example, Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale introduced the modern-day principles of nursing care as a consequence of witnessing the horrors of medicine during warfare. Barton was a field nurse in the American Civil War, and she afterwards established the American Red Cross, one of our most respected social-welfare organizations. Nightingale, a brilliant English woman and a skilled mathematician, cared for soldiers during the disastrous Crimean War, transforming the practice of battlefield care. She also developed mathematical models of epidemiology that improved mortality statistics in battlefield hospitals. She is viewed as the mother of modern nursing, but is less well known for her intellectual accomplishments.

Women were also essential participants in the abolitionist movement, inspired and supported by Harriett Beecher Stowe, Susan B. Anthony, Harriett Tubman, and Lucretia Mott, one of the founders of co-educational Swarthmore College, as well as by two Grimke sisters from Charleston, Sarah and Angelina, who worked with northern abolitionists.

Social reforms of the 19th century, which were promoted primarily by women, but which did not come to fruition until the 20th century, included equal rights for women themselves, such as women’s suffrage, as well as the right to limit pregnancy by means of contraception. A great number of women were involved in these causes—too many to name or number—but some of the most notable included Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the earliest suffragists, who wrote the Declaration of Sentiments (modeled on the Declaration of Independence); Sara Josephine Baker, a child-welfare advocate who is said to have saved the lives of 90.000 children in New York; and Margaret Sanger, who actively advocated for birth control and founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood.

Many of these women were both educated and celibate. Others intentionally limited the number of their children as best they could. It could be argued that the education of women in the nineteenth century catalyzed the wide-spread social reforms of the past two centuries.

posted by Planned Parenthood

Here are some interesting facts:

  • The first birth-control clinic in the U.S. was opened in 1916 by Margaret Sanger, who was almost immediately arrested and went to trial. She was convicted of running “a public nuisance” and the trial judge ruled that “women did not have the right to copulate with a feeling of security that there will be no resulting conception.”
  • It required a Supreme Court ruling in 1965 (Griswold vs. Connecticut) to overturn state laws prohibiting the use of contraceptives by married people.
  • Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court ruling overturning state laws prohibiting abortion during the first trimester, occurred in 1973, a mere four decades ago.
  • U.S. law does not allow birth-control information to be included in government-sponsored or government-funded aid to overpopulated, starving, and disease-ridden foreign countries.

Women, their concerns, and their value structures, are largely left out of political decision-making, even today.

Still, the virtues of caring and cooperation are at the very core of any civilized culture. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that civilization may have become possible, at least in part, because of decreased human male testosterone levels.** Anthropological evidence indicates that this occurred in humans following the Neolithic revolution, as agriculture came to contribute increasingly to human nutrition. The resulting decrease in male competition allowed the rise of large aggregates of cooperating people–a phenomenon we call civilization.

Because women tend to be more naturally empathetic than men and less prone to violence, their influence serves as a civilizing force on those cultures in which they are allowed power. We currently need more women in decision-making positions.

The very survival of civilization depends on it.


*A few notable exceptions were female monarchs, who ruled during the Age of Enlightenment. I plan to address the extraordinary influence of these women on European and world culture in another blog.

**The evolutionary selection pressures favoring increased socialization and decreased testosterone would make interesting speculation.

The final post in the series is on contraception and environmental preservation.

Posted in abolition, Abortion, Being a Woman, contraception, Motherhood, social reform, Women and Men, women's health, women's suffrage | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Contraception and Women’s Health

The debate over contraception and abortion has raged around moral issues such as whether or not destruction of a conceptus (a fertilized ovum) is equivalent to destruction of a human life, and whether or not the use of contraception promotes promiscuity in women. I have yet to see the issue of promiscuity in men addressed except as it relates to rape; I have never seen it referenced in any contraception discussion I have read, heard, or watched.

Several issues of major human concern, which I have never seen addressed by those who are anti-choice or against birth control, and which are seldom considered even by pro-choice advocates, include:

  1. women’s physical well-being,
  2. human social well-being, and
  3. environmental well-being (quality of life on this planet).

In the next three blogs, I will address these three issues, which are effectively at the ethical core of the debate over contraception and abortion. These are larger issues about long-term human survival, unlike the false debate about whether a cell (or a cluster of cells) with 46 chromosomes is a human being.

First of all, it’s important to acknowledge up front that the reproductive system, unlike all other bodily systems, is NOT designed for the preservation of the individual. All other systems of the body—for example, gastrointestinal, endocrine, and urinary systems—contribute to the maintenance and well-being of the person in whom they are found.

The function of the reproductive system, by contrast, is procreation and preservation of the species. It does not contribute to homeostasis; indeed, it frequently throws off the metabolic balance of the individual. A pregnant woman may develop gestational diabetes, for example—or osteoporosis, or circulatory problems, or pelvic floor damage, or lower back problems. So whatever else a pregnancy does, it takes a serious toll on the body of the woman carrying it, which can lead to long-term health problems.

Indeed, under circumstances “in the wild,” where no medical care is available, the likelihood of a woman dying in child-birth over her lifetime is about one for every seven to ten women. This dismal maternal death rate persists in many parts of Africa.

Comparable maternal mortality was also the case in the U.S. in the 1700s and early 1800s. Oddly, in the late 1800s, childbirth death rates actually increased substantially, largely because physicians replaced midwives as childbirth assistants. “Doctors” were often ill trained, were inclined to use instruments, and did not use aseptic technique. So the incidence of puerperal (childbirth) fever rose alarmingly, in some places as high of 40% of all deliveries.


Figure: Annual death rate per 1000 total births from maternal mortality in England and Wales (1850-1970)

J R Soc Med. Nov 2006; 99(11): 559–563.

These figures fit well with information from my own family history. My great-grandfather, an immigrant from Cornwall to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in the late nineteenth century, had a total of twenty one children, with three (sequential) wives, two of whom died in childbirth. And only seven of the children survived to adulthood, one of which was my grandfather.

So it certainly was dangerous to be a woman prior to the mid-twentieth century. And the past high mortality among women may account for much of our culture’s patriarchy; it has always been debilitating and/or limiting to carry, bear, and care for children.

Along with improved medical care, the availability of birth control has enhanced the health and productivity of women in this and all other modern nations. Those who wish to limit women’s access to birth control apparently do not care about women’s health. To try to turn back the clock on the past century’s improvement in the well-being of women is cruel, unthinking, and barbaric.

The next in this series in on contraception and social well-being.

Posted in Abortion, Being a Woman, blogs, contraception, Women and Men, women's health | Tagged , , , , , | 12 Comments

Women, Writing, and Blog Hops

woman-writing-poetry1  About a month ago, I agreed to participate in a blog hop focusing on the Writing Process. For those (few?) of you who haven’t participated in a blog hop, it goes something like this. One person writes a blog on a designated topic and, in the writing, links back to the original blogger as well as to one or more other bloggers, who then take up the baton and write on the same topic from their own perspective and for their own blog followers. This becomes a blog version of chain-mail; it’s way to promote blogs and books as well as friends’ blogs—and to increase internet interest in a specific topic or issue.

This particular blog- hop, started by Lynne Hinkey, was intended to promote the blogs and the books of Indie writers. So I agreed, having both a blog and a book I’d like to promote. Then I tried to line up a couple of author-bloggers to whom I could pass the baton, which became more problematical . Two writer-friends came quickly to mind; however, one has a blog  but her book is not yet in press, and the other has a book  but does not blog.

So I went further afield to a couple of writer-acquaintances, both of whom have blogs I follow  and books I’ve read. However, neither one had time to participate in a blog hop, which I understand, having passed through a harrowingly busy month of April, myself. And a couple other blog-acquaintances I thought of asking had been involved in recent blog hops, so I thought they were probably not up for another right now.

Since I try to keep my word (although sometimes belatedly), I feel compelled to continue this thread, but with no future promises. In this and the next post, I’ll be linking to several wonderful women writers; you can check out their sites and then pass them forward in your own blogs—or not, as you wish.

In the process of thinking about this topic and a way to frame it, I have also been mulling over women writers as a group—the ways we write, our major subject interests, the kinds of books we write, and why men seldom read books written by women whereas women often read books written by men.

So let me first fill in the blanks about the Writing Process.


Currently, I have two major projects in the works. One is a self-help book on Caring for Your Body, which brings together information on the structure and function of the body with tips on how to communicate with health-care professionals. The other is a book of short stories set in scientific labs, tentatively titled “Laboratory Notebook.” It is neither science fiction, nor truly main-stream fiction (few love affairs or dead bodies and no extraterrestrial creatures nor gruesome battles). I’ve posted a few of those stories in another blog site.


Both books I’ve published so far have been non-fiction. One is a travel memoir that takes a historical view of Korea, a country where I lived and traveled for two years. The book has a (mature) female perspective, as I compare my experiences with those of another female travel writer who visited Korea a century before I did, when she was the same age as I. The other is a book of meditations on the nature of spiritual experience, as viewed from a scientist’s perspective.

Neither book takes a traditional view of its subject matter: one is about the adventures of female travelers; the other is about spirituality from a scientist’s perspective.


I write about subjects viewed from a female scientist’s perspective, which means that I’m trained to think logically and linearly and yet can think with both sides of my brain. So I’m willing to intimate in writing the messy emotional under-story in a mesh-work of experiences described objectively. I write for others who might learn something interesting or valuable from the stories.


Unlike more economically successful writers, I take a rather scatter-shot approach to writing. I’ve actually been writing since age thirteen, when I began a journal in which I write to this day–if only occasionally–more than sixty years later. This habit has promoted an approach of introspective observer, some of which comes out in short fiction, my chief writing activity (besides scientific papers) during the decades I worked as a practicing scientist. At the time, I worked on stories when I had snatches of “free” time–for example, in airplanes on the way to and from scientific meetings. And I revised them during many evenings as after-hours mood-adjustment in place of drinking alcohol. The patient reworking of written words was deeply soothing.

Nonfiction has become a writing focus since retirement.  I’ve culled journals, letters and emails for topics of books and blogs. There seems to be endless material available.

In terms of discipline, I’ve rarely been able to specify a time each day when I write. As a consequence, my output is spotty, my blogs often lag or become temporarily abandoned, and I feel perpetually guilty and backlogged. My main discipline involves writers groups. At any one time, I usually belong to two or three groups which meet once a month, and I feel compelled to produce something new or revised for those. So—as in my prior work life—deadlines, whether external or self-imposed, seem to inspire the writing.

Moreover, I almost always have more than one book project in the works – two and sometimes three or four. I work on whichever one captures my interest at the moment, but then I may let it lie fallow if it seems to flag. When a project nears completion, though, I usually focus on that to the exclusion of all else (including housework), spending hours each day trying to revise a chapter or word-check a reference list.

So this is the writers’ blog hop I promised to do. Please click on the links in the text above (preferably opening in a new window) and read about some very interesting women writers and their work. More on women and writing in the next blog post.

Posted in Being a Woman, blogs, travel, women writers | Tagged , , , , , | 19 Comments