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Of microscopes and men


Without diversity at the design stage, scientific equipment gets discrimination baked in, says Nicola Williams

Irene Manton was both a formidable intellect and a formidable character. After  landing a double-first degree in botany at Cambridge in the 1930s, in 1946 she became the first woman to hold a professorship at the University of Leeds. Outside medicine, she was probably the first woman to chair a biological sciences department in a modern, chartered university. 

When she arrived at Leeds, Manton was already well known for her investigations of plant cells using light microscopy. It was a natural step to set her sights on the promise of the new electron microscope. Leeds was an early centre for electron microscopy—there had been one in the textile physics department since the early 1940s, courtesy of the US’s wartime lend-lease scheme.

Manton aspired to working with electron microscopy, but as I describe in a new paper, to her chagrin she found that getting there was no easy task. Electron microscopy was a man’s game. 

The university’s male-dominated physics department was deeply territorial and did not like to share with biologists. Early electron microscopes favoured taller, physically well-built users: here was a ‘physical’ tool that, according to physicists, required both physical strength and a sound knowledge of physics to operate. Since these qualities were more associated with men than women, this meant the microscope was controlled by physics and physicists.

So instead, Manton decided to get an electron microscope for her own department, even promising to remortgage her house if need be. That turned out to be unnecessary. Manton joined forces with a departmental colleague, the physicist-turned-biologist Reginald Preston, and made a successful bid to the UK government’s Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. In 1950, Leeds became the only department of botany in the UK with an electron microscope, and remained so for much of the following decade. 

But Manton’s travails were not over. Despite being head of department, and driving the device’s acquisition, she was given little time to use it. The grant for the microscope went to Preston, who already had a successful track record with this tool. His status as biophysicist trumped Manton’s standing as head, and she struggled to wrest the instrument away from colleagues with a background in physics. Instead of the free access she had hoped for, she found she had to make do with just half a day on the electron microscope each week. 

Even so, in the end Manton surmounted all these challenges and went on to make fundamental discoveries in cell biology. She now has a building at University of Leeds named after her.

Tired old tropes

The idea that women lack the physical and technical wherewithal to take charge of scientific instruments is as old as the instruments themselves, dating back to at least the 19th century. Instead, for much of science’s history, women have been treated almost as instruments themselves, put to work once the innovative stages of invention, design and experimentation with new tools and techniques are over. 

During the second world war, for example, women were set to work as ‘computers’, crunching numbers all day long on mechanical calculators. Women working as scanners, at institutions including the Weizmann Institute in Israel, spent long hours peering at photographic plates, produced in bubble chambers across Europe and the US, looking to detect charged nuclear particles. 

For women, scientific equipment and infrastructures can still be sites of exclusion, and sometimes worse. Astronomy, for example, is both one of the disciplines most reliant on big kit, and one with a troubling record of sexual harassment. 

Things are changing. As the number of women working in astronomy has grown in recent decades, they have sought to change the culture rather than fit into it. Scientific organisations have picked up the baton. 

And Manton, who died in 1988, would have been delighted to see the large number of women leaders working at the cutting edge of microscopy, driving innovation in numerous live-cell fluorescence imaging and super-resolution imaging, for example, and leading some of the world’s top synchrotron facilities.

But her story shows that equality needs to be considered at every stage of the techno-scientific process. It’s widely acknowledged that technologies reflect the people that design them, and if those people reflect only a narrow slice of society—young, white, male—then it’s easy for discrimination to get baked in. 


That applies to artificial intelligence as much as it applies to electron microscopes. There’s a need for a diversity of voices at the design stage and beyond to enable innovation, representation and participation. 

Nicola Williams is a historian of science at the University of Leeds.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight