PhD part 16: Stamping it out: are portrayals of scientists getting less sexist?
8 September 2020
I’ve been revisiting a lot of readings this last week. Dredging my research out of the lockdown lay-by and trying to reestablish my flow, I found a little red bullet point in my thesis draft that simply said: ‘contextualise what science is here’.
Like putting a jaunty little rug over a trapdoor over an enormous rabbit hole, I blundered into my own booby trap. I don’t know if I was being naive or optimistic or in denial, making it sound like I could job out a couple of hundred words and put to bed ‘what is science?’ once and for all. But to be honest, I’ve been enjoying getting lost in it again.
While mulling over my own preconceptions about what science looks like, I came across an anecdote from Michael Reiss () in a book chapter on science teaching. He highlights a set of stamps produced in the UK in 1991 on the theme of ‘Scientific achievements’. The stamps were captioned ‘Faraday – Electricity’, ‘Babbage – Computer’, ‘Radar – Watson-Watt’ and ‘Jet Engine – Whittle’. Reiss says:
I find it difficult to imagine a narrower conception of what science is and who does it. The image seems to be that real science is hard physics, with military applications, done by males who are white and worked on their own between about 1820 and 1940.’
‘Both miniature art works and pieces of government propaganda’
This piqued my interest, because I am a designer, and as a designer I perhaps look at stamps more than most. I have always thought them little abstracted encapsulations of what we value as a culture: ‘both miniature art works and pieces of government propaganda’ (). So I wondered, how much has changed in the three decades since this science portrait-in-miniature set was released? If stamps are a mini-mirror of what we value and how we see things, has how we see ‘the scientist’ changed significantly since Reiss made his observation? I sifted through the back catalogue of to find out…
Flip forward to 1996 and a woman scientist does get some philatelic credit. Chemist (and the only British woman to have received the Nobel Prize for science, for her work on crystallography that revealed the three-dimensional structures of biochemical compounds, notably vitamin B12 and penicillin)
joined a ‘20th Century Women of Achievement’ stamp set:
It seems churlish to look askance at anything that recognises and champions the achievements of women, but it does seem to tacitly acknowledge that all the other stamp sets lauding other achievement are the domain of men… Anyway, onwards through time!
For the millennium there was a series of mini-collections released as ‘Tales’. These included The Scientists’ Tale, as well as a ‘science adjacent’ set of stamps; ‘The Inventors’ Tale’ (others included the Entertainers’, Farmers’, Travellers’, Citizens’, Soldiers’, Artists’, Workers’ and Patients’ Tales).
The Scientists’ Tale stamps had the words Decoding DNA, Newton/Hubble Telescope, Faraday’s electricity and Darwin’s theory and were illustrated without portraits or further reference to the scientists on the stamps themselves.
However, the first day cover insert gives further detail, name-checking James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for the DNA discovery, with Darwin, Newton and Faraday’s accomplishments also expanded upon:
The Inventors’ Tale stamps highlighted Timekeeping (with the insert detailing John Harrison and his chronometer), Steam power (James Watt), Photography (Henry Fox-Talbot's photographic experiments) and Computers (Alan Turing). Though all these scientific discoveries and inventions are largely associated with and credited to men, perhaps the fact that the stamps themselves highlight the invention over inventor is by extension a nascent shift to focusing on the impact for society over the lauding of the individual? Or is that seeing what I want to see?
2003 saw another stamp set focusing on achievements rather than the scientists specifically, this time featuring ‘The secret of life: DNA and the genome’, with cartoon illustrations. This collection tried (not all together successfully, according to Royal Mail’s head of stamp strategy) to use humour to engage the public with science (). Though there are no names given on the stamps, the cartoons do feature two white-coated men assumed to be Watson & Crick, and the first day cover insert names them specifically (definitely a missed opportunity to acknowledge Rosalind Franklin):
Almost two decades on from the 1991 collection, 2010 saw 350 years of the UK Royal Society celebrated with a fresh set of lickable scientists, this time featuring a woman: Dorothy Hodgkin. Again. Laudable and absolutely worthy of the recognition of course, but still just the one.
2010 also saw a ‘’ set, which didn’t feature portraits, but did name-check six Sirs: Sir James Black (beta-blockers), Sir Alexander Fleming (penicillin), Sir John Charnley (hip replacement), Sir Harold Ridley (artificial lens implant), Sir Ronald Ross (confirmation malaria transmitted by mosquitoes) and Sir Godfrey Hounsfield (CT scanner). 2012’s ‘’ set focussed solely on discoveries rather than people, featuring imagery from observatories, satellites and probes.
And that’s it for scientists on UK stamp sets, though the British paleoanthropologist did make the 2013 ‘Great Britons’ set of ten (alongside actress Vivian Lee and cookery writer Elizabeth David; the remaining seven were men).
How about here?
But Is this a British issue? Alas no. Yardley also flags a serious blot on the copy book for Aotearoa: ‘no recognised female scientist has appeared on a New Zealand postage stamp’ ().
Subsequently however, there has been a glimmer of hope with the 2019 inclusion of and (alongside husband and fellow astronomer Alan Gilmore) in the set of stamps:
A little picture of us?
Does the depiction of scientists on stamps matter that much? Do stamps reflect what we value, or lead what we value? Perhaps a bit of both. Raento and Brunn () point to stamps having ‘considerable nation‐building power [making them] exemplary tools of what Michael Billig calls ‘banal nationalism’, and suggest that they are valuable territorially specific texts for political and sociocultural analysis, offering ‘valuable insights into the evolution and outlook of the issuing state’ (). And my cursory analysis of science stamps suggest that we're not evolving towards proactively recognising, acknowledging and encouraging diversity in science very fast.
As an aside, If stamps are ‘valuable insights’ showing us microcosms of culture, the 2020 Royal Mail makes confusing reading: video games, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, visions of the universe, Rupert the Bear, the end of the Second World War, view of Westminster, Queen (the band – the other one gets plenty of coverage!), romantic poets, Coronation Street, Star Trek and ?! Unpack that, anthropologists!
It seems sad that the Royal Mail could produce a set of stamps that portrayed such a biased view of science. Stamps to feature scientists could convey the notion that women do science, that science didn’t start in the nineteenth century and finish around the time of the Second World War, that it isn’t a Western construct, that it is done by people working in groups and that it permeates every area of life.
Sadly, it seems those same criticisms largely remain true of efforts since. Hmm, I am feeling a design project coming on to do better!
Altman, D. (1991). Paper Ambassadors: The Politics of Stamps. Angus & Robertson.
Raento, P., & Brunn, S. D. (2005). Visualizing Finland: Postage Stamps as Political Messengers. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography, 87(2), 145–164.
Reiss, M. (2004). What is science? Teaching science in secondary schools. In E. Scanlon, Reconsidering Science Learning (pp. 3–12). RoutledgeFalmer.
Yardley, C. B. (2015). The Representation of Science and Scientists on Postage Stamps: A science communication study. ANU Press; JSTOR.