The historian has devoted her career to bringing to light the ingenious accomplishments of those who have been forgotten
By Susan Dominus
n 1969, Margaret Rossiter, then 24 years old, was one of the few women enrolled in a graduate program at Yale devoted to the history of science. Every Friday, Rossiter made a point of attending a regular informal gathering of her department’s professors and fellow students. Usually, at those late afternoon meetings, there was beer-drinking, which Rossiter did not mind, but also pipe-smoking, which she did, and joke-making, which she might have enjoyed except that the brand of humor generally escaped her. Even so, she kept showing up, fighting to feel accepted in a mostly male enclave, fearful of being written off in absentia.
During a lull in the conversation at one of those sessions, Rossiter threw out a question to the gathered professors. “Were there ever women scientists?” she asked. The answer she received was absolute: No. Never. None. “It was delivered quite authoritatively,” said Rossiter, now a professor emerita at Cornell University. Someone did mention at least one well-known female scientist, Marie Curie, two-time winner of the Nobel Prize. But the professors dismissed even Curie as merely the helper to her husband, casting him as the real genius behind their breakthroughs. Instead of arguing, though, Rossiter said nothing: “I realized this was not an acceptable subject.”