Interviews / Science

A Conversation with Emily Temple-Wood

Ellen Pasternack talks to Emily Temple-Wood, Wikipedia editor and founder of the Women in Science wikiproject.

Emily Temple-Wood, an undergraduate biology student at Loyola University Chicago, has been editing Wikipedia articles since she was 12. In 2012, she found out that several women who had been fellows of the Royal Society did not have Wikipedia articles. ‘That made me angry, so I stayed up super late writing about one of them,’ she says. Soon afterwards, the Women in Science wikiproject was born.

A wikiproject is a place where Wikipedia editors share ideas and sources with the aim of improving coverage of a particular area; the Women in Science wikiproject currently has 80 contributors working on it. Since its inception, Emily estimates that the wikiproject has contributed over 1000 articles about women scientists who previously were not mentioned on Wikipedia, several hundred of which she researched and wrote herself.

The writing of these articles is no small task. ‘When I’m rewriting or writing a really big, important, biography, I start by reading basically everything out there about her,’ Emily explains. ‘That takes months.’ I was somewhat surprised to learn that the more obscure scientists are often easier to write about: few sources exist about their lives and work, so it’s quicker to get all the available information gathered. Emily says she often makes use of biographical dictionaries, such as The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science by Marilyn Ogilvie and Joyce Harvey.

So how bad is the underrepresentation problem? Only 16% of Wikipedia’s biographical articles are about women, up from 15% a year ago. The huge volume of information on Wikipedia means this small proportionate increase represents a lot of articles, and it is the product of this wikiproject and others like it: Women artists, Women writers, and several others. Emily thinks this underrepresentation has three main causes. Firstly, there are fewer women to write about because they have historically been prevented from contributing to science, through a lack of education, structural barriers preventing them from working, and hostility from their male peers. Secondly, women who did make amazing discoveries often went tragically uncredited and were not remembered by history. Finally, there’s the problem that modern readers and writers aren’t going out of their way to study unsung female heroes of science instead of well-known male ones, a problem that Emily believes may be exacerbated by the fact that the majority of Wikipedia editors are men themselves. ‘It’s a problem that keeps compounding itself,’ she says.

Some scientific fields have historically been less hostile to women than others: botany is one example. Emily has a hunch this could be due in part to patronising views of male contemporaries, which she describes as the “oh look, cute, she’s collecting plants” attitude. Despite being met with condescension, female naturalists have made extremely significant and valuable discoveries. For instance, the 17th century German naturalist Maria Merian carried out pioneering work on insect metamorphosis, putting paid to the commonly held idea that butterflies were spontaneously generated or came from dirt. Because of the barriers to them travelling on scientific expeditions, it was common for women naturalists to simply work with what was available and make very detailed and thorough inventories of the wildlife in their local areas. ‘A lot of this happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it’s now totally invaluable that we have all these herbaria and comprehensive writings about the flora of local areas,’ Emily tells me.

Barbara McClintock

It is clear from speaking to Emily how strongly she believes in the task she has set herself, and how much she admires the scientists she researches. One of her favourites is Barbara McClintock, whom she describes as ‘probably the greatest geneticist to ever live’. McClintock is something of a personal hero to Emily- she even has a poster of McClintock on her wall. ‘McClintock was the first really meaty biography I wrote, so she was fun to research. And I’m a genetics nerd, and use the things she discovered literally every day in my lab, so she’s important to me for a bunch of reasons.’

Barbara McClintock is one of the most remembered female scientists, however, and this project mainly aims to record the achievements of those less well known. In a passionate and strongly worded blog post entitled ‘Shit I can’t believe we had to fucking write this month’, Emily lists about a dozen scandalously unappreciated women who did not have Wikipedia articles until 2016. These include Elizabeth Alexander, who was the first to discover radio waves coming from the Sun, and Dottie Thomas, ‘the mother of bone marrow transplantation,’ whose husband received almost all recognition for the work they carried out together .No prizes for guessing whether her husband already had a Wikipedia page. Emily has written over a hundred similar biographies, including for Tilly Edinger, founder of the field of paleoneurobiology, and Astrid Cleve von Euler, who comes pretty close to being a modern polymath. A genius geologist as well as a distinguished organic chemistry researcher, von Euler also published extensively on the plant life of Northern Sweden, and the work she produced on the plankton there remains hugely important as it is the only record created prior to industrial pollution.

Emily featured in the news a few weeks ago for her unique method of dealing with sexist harassment that has come with her work. ‘Every time she’s harassed, this biologist creates a Wikipedia page for a woman scientist’, ran the headline of a New York Magazine article in March. At first Emily was very upset by the emails she sometimes receives from people who object to her mission, and by the ‘gross’ reddit page she found upon googling herself, but she is now glad to have a way to respond constructively. ‘They’re wasting their time giving me crap for what I do, whereas I’m contributing to the sum of human knowledge, so I think I win,’ she says defiantly. ‘But anyway, I don’t want praise from misogynists. I figure if I’m pissing them off, I’m doing something right.’

I wondered whether her research on women scientists had been what inspired Emily to study biology herself, but she says both happened at roughly the same time, so it’s not clear which might have influenced the other. However, her interest in medicine (Emily plans to study medicine after graduating in biology) has inspired her to join the work on another wikiproject, the Women’s Health wikiproject. ‘I’d been thinking about creating it actually, but someone else got there first,’ she laughs. ‘Our articles on reproductive health need a lot of work. They’re flimsy and incomplete in a lot of cases, or sometimes just completely missing.’ She tells me about an article she’s working on at the moment on paediatric gynaecology, which is apparently an interesting but little-known field that currently completely lacks documentation on Wikipedia. ‘I’m sure at some point I’ll get flack for writing about vaginas too much or something, but it needs to be done,’ she shrugs.

So what is the end goal of these projects? Complete coverage is a long way off, of course, but in the meantime, every woman scientist brought back into our narrative instead of being lost to history is a small victory for women everywhere. These scientists may have been denied recognition in their own time, but by at least making sure they are not forgotten today, some posthumous justice is achieved. ‘We can only do so much,’ Emily reflects, ‘but by choosing to make sure these particular stories are told, we can do so much.’ We at Bluestocking wish her all the best for her continued work on this important mission.

References

Ogilvie MB and Harvey JD (2000) The Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science: Pioneering Lives from Ancient Times to the Mid-20th Century, New York: Routledge.

Smith R (2016) ‘Every Time She’s Harassed, This Biologist Creates a Wikipedia Page for a Woman Scientist’, New York Magazine.

Swaby R (2015) Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science – and the World, Broadway Books.

Temple-Wood E (2016), ‘Shit I can’t believe we had to fucking write this month’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Wikipedia_Signpost/2016-02-17/Op-ed

Wikipedia:WikiProject Women scientists https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women_scientists

Wikipedia:WikiProject Women’s Health https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:WikiProject_Women%27s_Health

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