No dinner, but a nice box of chocs

Observations on science and sexism

Sex and science may mix happily on the Discovery Channel, but the merest whiff of womanhood can be too much for some members of the Royal Society, our noblest scientific academy. The famously blonde and leather-skirted Baroness (Susan) Greenfield, facing resistance to the idea of conferring a Royal Society fellowship on her, is not the first woman to discover that.

In 1923, when women were barred altogether from membership of the Royal Society, a young Cambridge physicist called Constance Elam was invited by her professor, G I Taylor, to deliver jointly with him the society's Bakerian Lecture, one of the highlights of the scientific calendar. She accepted and was billed as C F Elam, the signature she placed on her published papers. In due course, she received an invitation from the Royal Society Dining Club to attend a dinner afterwards, as the Bakerian lecturers always did.

With days to go to the great event, however, both she and the club realised that a mistake had been made. It was an all-male club and the invitation had been issued on the assumption that she was a man. Just as the club secretary was bracing himself to write and disinvite her - the matter had been solemnly debated - she anticipated him by gracefully declining the invitation. The relieved club (male readers may wish to look away now) despatched a box of chocolates by way of consolation.

Elam's letter of thanks unwittingly captures the miserable predicament of most women in science at that time. Instead of telling them where to shove their chocolates, she declared: "I am sorry to have given you so much trouble, but it is my misfortune rather than my fault that I do not happen to be a man. I felt very much honoured on receiving your invitation although I realised that it had been sent under a misunderstanding."

Under her later, married name of Tipper, and in circumstances where outright sexism had become a less affordable luxury, this same woman was to make an important contribution to the safety of shipping. An expert in stresses on metals, she was called in by the Admiralty during the Second World War when alarming numbers of American "Liberty ships" - built in a hurry to keep supplies to Britain flowing - were breaking up at sea. She showed that the fault lay not with the welding, as had been assumed, but with the metal itself, which was cracking in the low North Atlantic temperatures. A "Tipper test" ensured that future ships were built of sounder metal, and similar tests are still applied not only to ships' hulls but to the wings of aeroplanes and the axles of cars.

The Royal Society, and with it the RS dining club, began admitting women in the 1940s, but even today fewer than 5 per cent of the society's fellows are women (though the figures are improving quite rapidly). As for Constance Tipper, although she lived until 1995, she was never elected to a fellowship.

The Fly in the Cathedral: how a small group of Cambridge scientists won the race to split the atom, by Brian Cathcart, is published by Viking on 26 February

Brian Cathcart is Director of Hacked Off. He tweets as @BrianCathcart.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2004 issue of the New Statesman, The new serfs