Ada Lovelace Day: Dr Isabel Gal

This year for Ada Lovelace day, I wrote a new Wikipedia page about Dr Isabel Gal, a Hungarian paediatrician and Holocaust Survivor who, in 1967,  was responsible for establishing a link between use of the hormonal pregnancy test Primodos and severe congenital birth defects.  I came across Gal quite by chance via the @OnThisDayShe twitter account, which aims to “Put women back into history, one day at a time.”  

A quick google showed that while there were Wikipedia entries for Primodos and for Baroness Cumberlege who led a review into the drug, there was no entry for Gal herself.  Which is all the more astonishing given the extraordinary and tenacious life she led.  Gal, a Hungarian Jew, survived the Holocaust after being interred in Auschwitz along with her mother and two sisters, all of whom survived.  Her father however died in Mauthausen concentration camp.  After the war, Gal studied to become a paediatrician at the University of Budapest and married mathematician Endre Gal.  During the Hungarian revolution of 1956, Gal and her family fled to the UK, after being smuggled out of Hungary into Austria.  What I didn’t know when I started writing the article was that Gal re-qualified as a doctor at the University of Edinburgh.  According to her daughter-in-law, who wrote her obituary for the Guardian, she found Scottish accents easier to understand than London ones.  I haven’t been able to find any information online about Gal’s time in Edinburgh, but I’ll be contacting the University’s Centre for Research Collections as soon as I get back from leave, to see what they can dig up. 

In 1967, while working at St Mary’s Children’s Hospital in Surrey, Gal published a short article in Nature magazine highlighting a link between Primodos, a hormonal pregnancy test marketed by the German drug company Shering AG, and serious congenital birth defects.  She also pointed out that the test used the same components as oral contraceptive pills.  Despite taking her findings to the Department of Health,  the Committee on Safety of Medicines, and the government’s Senior Medical Officer, Bill Inman, her warnings were ignored, partially as a result of concerns that they would discourage women from taking oral contraception.  Primodos was banned in several European countries in the early 1970s, but it wasn’t until 1975 that a warning was added to Primodos in UK, and it was only withdrawn from the market in 1978, for commercial reasons.  A long running campaign by the Association for Children Damaged by Hormone Pregnancy Tests, and the discovery of documents revealing that Shering had concealed information relating to the dangers of the drug, eventually resulted in a government review that found that there was no causal association between Primodos and birth defects.  However Theresa May, who was then prime minister, ordered a second review led by Baroness Cumberlege, which published its findings earlier this year and concluded that there was indeed a link and that the drug should have been withdrawn from use in 1967. 

Gal believed she was blacklisted as a result of her campaign and after being repeatedly turned down for senior positions, she eventually left the medical profession. She died in London in 2017 at the age of 92, two years before the Cumberlege review vindicated her findings. 

Interviewed about the review’s findings, Theresa May said she believed that sexism had been partially responsible for the authorities failure to act. 

“I almost felt it was sort of women being patted on the head and being told ‘there there dear’, don’t worry. You’re imagining it. You don’t know. We know better than you do….I think this is a very sad example of a situation where people were badly affected, not just by the physical and mental aspect of what Primodos actually did, but by the fact that nobody then listened to them…”

A Skye News investigation in 2017  revealed that Inman, who had originally stonewalled Gal’s efforts to have the drug withdrawn, and whose own research showed an increased risk of birth defects among women who had used hormone pregnancy tests, had destroyed his research data, “to prevent individual claims being based on his material”.   

Dr Gal’s story, and her omission from Wikipedia, are sadly typical of many women scientists whose contributions have been stifled, stonewalled, ignored, elided and written out of history.  It’s very telling that while Gal didn’t even have a red link, Inman has an extensive and glowing Wikipedia entry, which makes no mention of his role in the Primodos scandal or the fact that he destroyed evidence relating to the case.  However with the publication of the Cumberlege  Review and a new Sky documentary, Bitter Pill: Primodos, there has been increased interest in Gal’s role in highlighting the dangers of hormonal pregnancy tests.  I hope her new Wikipedia entry will help others to discover Dr Isabel Gal’s amazing story, and bring her the recognition she deserves. 

Ada Lovelace, Exmoor ponies and the trouble with sources

Madeleine Shepherd and Anne-Marie Scott, ALD18, CC BY, Lorna M. Campbell

I didn’t manage to post a blog post on Ada Lovelace Day this year because I spent most of my spare time in the run up to the event looking for sources for the twenty contemporary Women in STEM nominated for Wikipedia article creation as part of the University of Edinburgh’s Ada Lovelace Day Editathon. The event itself is always one of the highlights of the year and this year was no exception. We had a really inspiring series of talks in the morning from the University’s Women in STEM and Physics Societies and the student WellComm Kings initiative. Mathematician and maker Madeleine Shepherd of Knot Unknot also came along and showed us her amazing knitted portraits of Ada Lovelace and Mary Somerville, which she created on a hacked knitting machine. We had a range of activities including DIY Filmschool and cake decorating followed by Wikipedia and Wikidata editing in the afternoon.

Back to those sources though…

Finding good quality secondary sources for contemporary academics can be tricky and it’s doubly difficult for female academics whose work is less visible and less widely reported. Wikipedia relies on independent secondary sources; it’s not sufficient for an academic to have published extensively, to be regarded as notable, it’s necessary to show that they have had a significant impact in their field. This can be problematic for female academics, and particularly for women in STEM, who routinely face discrimination on account of their gender.

There was much outrage in the press recently when it was reported that Donna Strickland did not have a Wikipedia entry until she received the Nobel Prize for Physics, with some news reports throwing up their hands in horror at Wikipedia’s gender bias. This isn’t news to anyone who has engaged with or edited Wikipedia of course. We are all well aware of Wikipedia’s gender bias, there’s even a Wikipedia article about it, and we’re working hard to fix it through our Wikimedia chapters, editathons and projects such as Wiki Women in Red. Also as Alex Hinojo pointed out:

In an article titled Wikipedia is a mirror of the world’s gender biases, Wikimedia Foundation’s Executive Director Katherine Maher, noted that it’s somewhat disingenuous for the press to complain about Strickland’s lack of Wikipedia entry when the achievements of women scientists are routinely under reported. We need more reports and independent secondary sources so we can improve the coverage of women on the encyclopaedia.

Wikipedia is built on the shoulders of giants. We’re generalists who learn from the expertise of specialists, and summarize it for the world to share. If journalists, editors, researchers, curators, academics, grantmakers, and prize-awarding committees don’t apply their expertise to identifying, recognizing, and elevating more diverse talent, then our editors have no shoulders upon which to stand. It’s time for these other knowledge-generating institutions to join us in the pursuit of knowledge equity. Wikipedia alone can’t change how society values women, but together we can change how they are seen.

A case in point is Mary Etherington, one of the women nominated for our Ada Lovelace Day editahon. The person who nominated Mary wrote

Mary Etherington was integral to the protection of the Exmoor pony breed after the war. She saw the importance of protecting the breed which was nearly extinct after the ponies had been used as a meat source during rationing and as target practise for the armies on Exmoor.

Whilst she is well known within the Exmoor pony breed, I believe she may be lost to time due to her rural links and the general lack of representation for rural matters on Wikipedia as well as her being a woman.

I really struggled to find many good sources about Mary online, but one of our editathon participants, Vicki Madden, was captivated by her story and determined to create an article about her. After some creative research and round about thinking, Vicki and Anne-Marie were able to find a whole range of independent sources and Mary Etherington now has her own shiny new Wikipedia entry.

Meanwhile I wrote an article on Tara Spires-Jones Professor of Neurodegeneration and Deputy Director of the Centre for Discovery Brain Sciences at the University of Edinburgh. I don’t know Tara personally but in her nomination she was described as:

World-leading research into molecular mechanisms of dementia. Works tirelessly to promote public understanding of science through expert comment in press and public engagement activities. Lovely person and very supportive of other women.

I hope her new Wikipedia article will help to raise awareness of her work to the general public and go a little way to replaying the support she has provided to others.

Ada Lovelace Day – Professor Elizabeth Slater

Today is Ada Lovelace Day and unfortunately I am stuck at home waiting for a network engineer to come and fix my intermittent internet, rather than joining colleagues in Edinburgh for this year’s event celebrating Women in STEM.   Ada Lovelace Day is always one of my favourite events of the year so I’m gutted to miss it, especially as there will be periodic table cup cakes as designed by chemist Ida Freund! However I’m planning to participate remotely so that I can defend my Metadata Games crown and I am also hoping to write a Wikipedia article about a woman from this field who was an inspiration to me when I was a student.

Vulcan hammering metal at a forge watched by Thetis. Engraving by Daret after Jacques Blanchard. CC BY, Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons.

Dr Elizabeth Slater was a lecturer in archaeology when I studied at the University of Glasgow in the late 1980s and it was as a result of her lively and engaging lectures that I developed an interest in archaeological conservation.  I believe Liz started her academic career as a scientist, before developing an interest in archaeometallurgy, and from there moving into archaeology. Liz taught us material sciences, conservation, archaeometallurgy, early smelting techniques, chemical analysis, experimental archaeology and the use and abuse of statistics.  It was her lectures on archaeometallurgy that really fascinated me though and it was from Liz that I remember hearing the theory as to why smith gods in so many mythologies happen to be lame.  One of the most common native ores of copper, which was smelted before the development of bronze, is copper arsenic ore, and when it’s smelted it gives off arsenic gas.  Prolonged exposure to arsenic gas results in chronic arsenic poisoning, the symptoms of which include sensory peripheral neuropathy, or numbness of the extremities, and distal weakness of the hands and feet.  It’s not too difficult to imagine that early smiths must frequently have suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning and that, Liz suggested, was why smith gods were portrayed as being lame.  This appears to be a relatively widespread theory now and I’m not sure it can be credited to any one individual, however it’s a fascinating story and one I always associate with Liz.

Liz left Glasgow in 1991 to take up the Garstang Chair in Archaeology at the University of Liverpool.  At the time, I believe she was the only current female Professor of Archaeology in the UK, Professor Rosemary Cramp having retired from Durham University the previous year.  Liz had a long and active career at the University of Liverpool, where she also served as Dean of the Faculty of Arts.  She retired in 2007 and died in 2014 at the age of 68.   In 2015 the University of Liverpool commemorated her contribution to archaeological sciences by opening the Professor Elizabeth Slater Archaeological Research Laboratories.

Liz does not currently have a Wikipedia page, but hopefully I can do something about that this afternoon.

ETA And I did! Liz Slater‘s new Wikipedia page was published on Ada Lovelace Day 2017.