September 29, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Sexism in Science Naming of Stuff? Bunsen, Petri, Southern, & More

In science we often use equipment, methods, or units that are named after accomplished scientists of the past without even thinking about it.

Originally, this piece was going to be dedicated to those pioneering scientists, but then I realized they are essentially all men with disturbingly few possible exceptions. Is there rampant sexism in science naming at work here? Let’s discuss some of these names and people.

Bunsen BurnerThe Bunsen Burner

Call me crazy, but I love the blue flame of a Bunsen burner. Where did this ubiquitous and indispensable lab tool get its name? It never occurred to me to ask until recently. The Bunsen Burner was named after German scientist Robert Bunsen, who invented it.

The Petri Dish

We use Petri dishes all the time and adaptations of Petri dishes made of plastic. Where did it get its name? It turns out it was named for Julius (Richard) Petri, its inventor. Richard Petri was a German microbiologist who produced the glass dish, a key feature as it could be sterilized.

petri dishThe Southern Blot

Many of us scientists use a technique called Southern Blotting to measure DNA, although it is not as popular these days. Most of us started out doing this without realizing that a Southern Blot is not named after a direction but rather a person. This method of DNA evaluation was named after Edwin Southern.

Pasteurization

All those dairy products so many of us love, but tow which some are intolerant due to a deficiency in lactase are safe today and have been for a long time due to a process called Pasteurization. This was named after Louis Pasteur.

The Curie and other Scientific units, elements

We measure radiation using different units and one helpful unit is the Curie. Now there is of course a famous female scientific genius after whom the radiation unit “Curie” could have been named. This was the genius Marie Curie. However, there is some debate as to whether this scientific unit was named instead by the powers that be at the time after just her equally famous husband, Pierre Curie, after Marie, or both of them. I hope it included her.

For the element Curium, it was named after both Marie and Pierre Curie, so that’s a positive. Speaking of elements, we have an unambiguous naming after another great woman scientist there for the element Meitnerium, named after the great Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner.

There are dozens of other scientific units named after people (for instance, see this list on Wikipedia) and as best as I can tell only one other one is named after a woman scientist, the amazing theoretical physicist, Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Scientific phenomena named after people have very few women being honored as well.

Update above, over on Twitter Jason Sheltzer made a really good point that one of the most famous naming of something after a woman in science was HeLa cells and that was based on unethical appropriation of her cells.

Overall, is there as big a degree of sexism in honorary scientific naming as it seems? Am I missing any other scientific ‘namings’ that included women scientists? If you know of some, please let me know and I will update this to include them.

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