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Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

Any study of genius inevitably leads to an uncomfortable question: where are the women? Where are the female Mozarts, the Teslas and the Rembrandts? The fact that half of humanity is mostly missing from this equation eventually bothers us, and it should. Either we accept that women are somehow innately inferior, or we begin to look for answers. Why has knowledge of brilliant women throughout history been more the exception than the rule?

Our modern era is the first time in recorded history when women have ever truly had a shot at equality. We’re not there yet, but at least in many parts of the world women now have the freedom to contemplate great ideas, pursue mysteries and fully express their minds if they choose to do so.

One of the keys to this surge of feminine freedom is education. Historically, even the most intelligent women have struggled to gain knowledge.

Our modern era is the first time in recorded history when women have ever truly had a shot at equality

Dutchwoman Anna Maria Van Schurman could read at age four, mastered Greek, Latin, Hebrew and French, and went on to study law and theology at the newly founded University of Utrecht in the 1640s. Though she became known as the “star of Utrecht” and was one of the sights visiting scholars and aristocrats had to see when they passed through the city, she was only allowed to attend class behind a curtain. More than 200 years later, M. Carey Thomas faced the same fate at the University of Leipzig; the administration insisted on the curtain so she would not “distract the male students” and refused to grant a woman a Ph.D. She transferred to the University of Zurich and became the first American woman to earn a doctorate.

By contrast, in the United States today, women make up 56 % of the college population, a number that is continuing to rise. Between 45 and 50 percent of all doctorates in biology are earned by women, as well as 33 percent of those in chemistry. Since 1903, women have earned 34 Nobel Prizes, including two in physics, three in chemistry and seven in physiology and medicine. This is a far cry from 1874, when Dr. Edward Clarke, a professor at Harvard Medical School, argued that attending college would injure or perhaps destroy a woman’s reproductive organs.

In the past women’s contributions, particularly in science, were often overlooked or actively ignored. Although it was Rosalind Franklin whose groundbreaking work led to the discovery of the structure of DNA, it was Watson and Crick who won the Nobel Prize. Physicist Lise Meitner’s collaboration with Otto Hahn led to the discovery of nuclear fission, but Hahn claimed all the credit, winning both the Nobel Prize in chemistry and the Enrico Fermi award, one of the oldest and most prestigious science and technology awards given by the U.S. Government.

Today, women are receiving their due. Dr. Candace Pert’s discovery of opiate receptors in the brain eventually led pharmacologists to find and identify endorphins. Professor of psychology Elizabeth Gould revolutionized neuroscience in the late 1990s with her discovery of hippocampal neurogenesis, the ability of adult brains to create new neurons. More women are experimenting in labs throughout the world than at any time in recorded history. Granted, in part, this is the result of the current state of electronic media; graduate students’ work leaves such a virtual paper trail that it is difficult, if not impossible, to take credit for someone else’s ideas.

Can we really afford to waste so much human talent – the potential for genius in half of humanity?

Such news is encouraging but it should not obscure certain unpalatable truths. Of the 1.2 billion people living in poverty worldwide, 70 percent are women. Nearly a half billion women are stunted from malnutrition. Women and children compose 70 to 80 percent of populations displaced by emergencies such as war and natural disaster.

How does this impact the potential for genius? One of Gould’s current studies is examining the impact of stressful conditions on primate brains. Under stress, the brain stops creating new cells and actually begins to starve, compromising cognitive ability.

“I often wonder how many great creative minds have been lost, because there was no nurture to help them grow and flourish,” says Dr. Nancy Andreasen. Andreasen holds the Andrew H. Woods Chair of Psychiatry at the University of Iowa Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

“Being a woman, I think about women in particular. . . can we really afford to waste so much human talent – the potential for genius in half of humanity? We must, as a society, begin to think in more creative ways about how to enhance both extraordinary creativity and ordinary creativity in our social structures.”

A hundred years from now, a search of the word “genius” will reveal something different. For every Einstein, Tesla and Mozart, there will be a new name, a feminine name, a name we don’t know yet. It’s about time.

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