What is the Matilda Effect?
The Matilda Effect posits that women in science become overlooked because many of their discoveries and breakthroughs are attributed to men.
There are very real ways women are deterred from careers in science altogether; but the Matilda Effect explains that even when women contribute meaningfully (and they do even more than we realize), future generations will never know the extent of their contributions, because men are given the credit.
That credit can take in many forms: awards, citations on paper, portraits, casual mentions, names on buildings...
An example: In Episode 2, we learn that Dorothy Andersen co-authored a groundbreaking paper in 1951, which suggested for the first time that cystic fibrosis impacted the sweat glands. But a paper written in 1953 by several authors, including Paul di Sant’Agnese, Dr. Andersen’s mentee, is cited more often in later papers. As an effect, de Sant’ Agnese went down in medical history as the scientist who made the link between cystic fibrosis and the sweat glands.
These kinds of misattributions—or more accurately, missed attributions—conceal women layer by layer. This is how they get “lost.”
Who named the Matilda Effect?
Margaret Rossiter, an American historian of science who pioneered a field of research on female scientists, coined the term in a 1993 paper. After graduating from Radcliffe College, the former women’s-only college that later merged with Harvard, Rossiter earned numerous graduate degrees—a Masters of Science, Masters of Philosophy, and a Ph.D. The culmination of her academic career is a three-volume work called Women Scientists in America, which examines how women made meaningful or groundbreaking scientific contributions in spite of forces that hindered their careers and legacies.
Rossiter observed in both her research and her own life as a scholar how often men are given credit for the work of women scientists. Rossiter hoped that naming the phenomenon would make a larger impact in academia than just describing it. And she was right. It turned out scientific communities had been hungry for nomenclature, because “the Matilda Effect” has been cited in hundreds of papers since.
Who is Matilda?
Rossiter named the term after Matilda Joslyn Gage, a suffragist, author, and activist.
Gage was raised by progressive parents, abolitionists whose house was a station on the Underground Railroad. She aspired to be a doctor, but had to change course after being rejected by a series of medical schools that refused to consider a female applicant. She is remembered as one of the most progressive members of the women’s suffrage movement, and in 1870 she published a pamphlet titled “Woman as an Inventor,” the first known history of women scientists written by an American woman.
In the pamphlet, Gage argues that women have been responsible for keystone inventions from early human history to the development of the Americas, but they are remembered for very few of them, because credit tends to go to the nearest man willing to accept it—often a husband. She even claims that a woman, Catharine Littlefield Greene, invented the cotton gin and gave Eli Whitney instructions to manufacture it before he became known as its inventor.
“Woman as an Inventor” essentially catalogues historical instances of men taking credit for women’s scientific accomplishments—what Rossiter would later name the Matilda Effect.
Who does the Matilda Effect affect?
Simply put, the Matilda Effect affects women who contribute to science.
Here’s an example:
This is Alice Ball, a chemist who developed the most effective treatment for leprosy during the early 20th century, now known as “the Ball Method.” But for decades, the Ball Method was misnamed “the Dean Method.”
When Ball began a Master’s program in chemistry at the University of Hawaii, people believed to have leprosy, mostly native Hawaiians, were brought by police officers to Kalihi Hospital in Honolulu. Severe cases were quarantined on the island of Molokai, sometimes for years, until the disease killed them.
Dr. Harry Hollmann, an assistant surgeon at Kalihi, was urgently working to cure leprosy using chaulmoogra tree oil, a treatment that had shown promise but was difficult to administer; used as an ointment, it was ineffective. Taken orally, it caused severe nausea (one patient said, “I’d rather have leprosy than take another dose”).
After Ball earned her degree in 1915—becoming the first woman and first Black person to earn a Master’s from the University of Hawaii— Dr. Hollmann enlisted her to help him develop an injectable version of the oil. And she did. Ball was able to devise a process that transformed the fatty acids into ethyl esters, making the substance water soluble, and potentially injectable.
But Ball died in 1916 at the age of 24 in what was probably a lab accident, before her research was published.
After her death, Dr. Arthur Dean, the president of the University of Hawaii, continued Ball’s research and published reports on “his” findings, without any mention of Ball. Dean began mass producing his product, which he called “the Dean Method,” and was widely praised. The Department of the Interior even referred to the ethyl esters Ball discovered as “Dean derivatives.”
Dr. Holloman objected to Dean’s claims to the treatment, and in 1922, published a paper that acknowledged Ball as its true originator. Even then, Dean retained his status as the genius behind the ethyl esters treatment.
Many years later, Dr. Kathryn Takara and Stan Ali found Ball’s name in a book and put the true story together. Their archival work brought Ball’s essential contribution to light. Thanks to Ball, 84 leprosy patients were allowed to return home from Kalihi hospital after receiving her treatment.
Ball’s story testifies to the importance of naming. During the years that Ball’s name was missing from her discovery, she was also missing from the public’s consciousness. There are names of men all over the world—names of diseases, names of fish, names of bacteria and constellations. We need to ask: Do all those names reflect the most deserving person?