Women in Neuroscience and Psychology: Celebrating Women’s Equality Day!

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Today we celebrate Women’s Equality Day! To mark this day, we want to highlight the lives of a few pioneering female psychologists and neuroscientists, whose work inspired our current understanding of the brain.

Whilst traditionally women have been excluded from positions of power in the field of science, much of our understanding of neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry is due to the work of women. Today, we will cover only a handful of the great women who helped shape our modern knowledge of the brain and our behaviour.


Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012) was a Jewish Italian scientist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her ground-breaking work in neuroembryology. Rita’s scientific career was not easy; her father strongly disapproved of women’s education beyond finishing school. However, at 20 years old, Rita had realised “that [she] could not possibly adjust to a feminine role as conceived by [her] father, and asked him permission to engage in a professional career”. Convincing her father to let her pursue a scientific career, Rita enrolled in the University of Turin, studying medicine and surgery. Upon graduating in 1936 with the highest distinction, Rita started advanced studies in neurology and psychology. However, another obstacle arose with the rise of Mussolini to power, quickly forbidding any non-Aryan races from having professional careers. Being a Jew under Fascist rule, Rita was kicked out of school and forced to continue her research of motor neurons in chick embryos from her bedroom, before fleeing Italy and migrating to Washington, USA.

Rita’s early research focused on how cells divide and grow through dissection and inspection of nerve cells in chick embryos. Her work led to her eventual isolation of nerve growth cells, laying the foundation of what we now know as nerve growth factor. Rita’s discovery of the way cells divide and grow marks an important milestone, and this knowledge is underlying much of the current understanding of modern cell biology. Rita died aged 103 years, making her the longest-living Nobel Prize winner.

Rita Levi-Montalcini in her office in Washington in the late 1950s.
Taken from Baker Medical Library, Washington University School of Medicine.

When you hear the name Freud, the majority of us typically think of the famous neurologist Sigmund Freud. However, the Freud family also has remarkable women who laid the foundation of our current understanding of child psychology and psychoanalysis. Unlike her famous father Sigmund, Anna Freud focused her work on children. She was born in Austria in 1895, and as the First World War broke out, Anna started training as a teacher assistant in her old school. Working with children at a time of war, food shortages, and little heating and fuel, Anna was a compassionate teacher who supported her pupils’ emotions. Her practical experience working with children, coupled with her interest in psychoanalysis from her father, led Anna to start practicing psychoanalysis with her father, but her previous teaching work drew her to child psychology. In 1927, she published a paper delineating different defense mechanisms in children. This theory is the basis of modern child psychology. Her later work also focused on children who experienced neglect or abandonment, showing that these could lead to development or psychological problems. You can learn more about her pioneering theories in this video!

Overall, Anna should not just be remembered as Freud’s daughter, but as a brilliant psychologist who shaped child therapy – many still consider her the founder of child psychoanalysis!

 

Mamie Phipps Clark was a woman of many firsts. Mamie was the first African-American woman to obtain a PhD in the US, became the first professor at the City College of New York, and the first African-American woman to be the president of the American Psychological Association. Born in Arkansas in 1917, Mamie went on to Howard University to study Mathematics, before ultimately switching to psychology. Her master’s thesis was centered on racial identity and self-esteem among minority children. Upon graduating, Mamie worked as a psychologist at an organisation for homeless black girls, and realised there was very little mental health support for minority children. So, alongside her husband, Mamie founded the Northside Center for Child Development, which was the first establishment to offer psychological services to children in the Harlem area of New York. Mamie and her husband are also famous for their classical experiment “The Clark Doll Test”, where children were given a black and a white doll, and were asked to choose their favourite. They found that 59% of children labeled the black doll as “bad” and 33% selected the white doll as the one that most resembled them, regardless of their skin colour. This played an important role in understanding children’s self-identity and self-concept. Unfortunately, Mamie’s work has often been neglected, although she laid much of the groundwork for our current knowledge in child psychology and her ideas still resonate with us today.

Mamie Phipps Clark
Photographer unknown


Lastly, if we talk about pioneering female neuroscientists, we cannot leave out Cécile Vogt-Mugnier. Cécile was a French neurologist who is considered one of the pioneers of functional brain neuroanatomy and genetics. Born in 1875, in a time where only 6% of all physicians were female, Cécile entered medical school in Paris, studying under neurologist Pierre Marie. Upon graduating in 1900 with a dissertation in neuroanatomy, Cécile met her husband, a fellow neurologist, and moved to Germany, where she was refused to practice medicine. Cécile continued pursuing research, although her work was not always recognised. She took on the important, yet, very long and delicate job of tracing each nerve from the brain to its connection in the body, revealing previously unknown structures within the brain and their roles. Thanks to Cécile undertaking critical anatomic work on thousands of brain slices we understand how different brain regions function, and despite an impressive research career, her contribution to neurology is too often overlooked and overshadowed by her husband.

Copyright © 2018 Wellcome Collection



In 2021, women still need to face hurdles and overcome cultural and institutional barriers in academia which continue to hinder equal opportunities in academia and research. We have come a long way – with more than half of medical students being women and 57% of scientific bachelor and master degrees obtained by women. However, there’s still a way to go for women in STEM until we reach full equality.

Here’s to expanding the list of inspiring female neuroscientists and psychologists!

 

If you want to read more about these inspiring women, check out these resources:

https://www.nobelprize.org/womenwhochangedscience/stories/rita-levi-montalcini 

https://ncses.nsf.gov/pubs/nsf19304/

https://www.verywellmind.com/mamie-phipps-clark-biography-2796022

https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(18)30002-4/fulltext 

Featured photo from Pexels, by RF._.studio.

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