Sunday, January 9, 2011


To what extremes would you go to practice science? Women have contributed to science from ancient times, but often did so under unique circumstances. During the Middle Ages, many were prevented from making contributions because they were excluded from acquiring a formal education and holding jobs in science.  Women were believed to be incapable of intellectual thought and holding positions of authority.

Those women who managed to pursue their interest in nature and science, despite such social restrictions, provide some lessons for those of us who currently struggle with lingering obstacles to a pursuit of full and rewarding careers in science.  I'm currently reading "The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe" by Glynis Ridley.  It's about a French woman who set sail in 1766 disguised as a male valet and assistant to her botanist lover, Philibert Commerson, who was the expedition's naturalist.  In addition to having to wear tight bindings to hide her breasts (and which restricted breathing and caused a bad case of eczema), she also had to display strength and stamina equal to a man in order to maintain her disguise.  She hauled heavy equipment into the field and carried back all the collected samples (her naturalist lover was perpetually ill during the voyage and apparently left most of the heavy work to Baret).  One can only imagine the conditions she endured on an 18th century boat as well as on land during field expeditions.

How many of us would choose to endure such challenges to pursue our science?  Not many, I would guess.  For me, it would not be the physical challenges so much as the mental and emotional challenges of persevering alone, with little hope of recognition as to my contributions, no one to empathize with my situation, and the constant fear of discovery (and being abandoned on some remote shore).  It's interesting, perhaps, that such emotional challenges are not that different from those that modern female scientists experience (and list as their primary reasons for being unsatisfied with a career in science).  When you feel unwelcome, are closely scrutinized, are excluded from socializing with colleagues, not given the resources you need to compete, and are not recognized for your accomplishments, you must be extraordinarily strong and self-confident to persist.

How did Baret manage to survive and continue to work under the conditions she endured for two years?  I'm not sure we'll ever know, since she did not leave a journal that expressed her innermost feelings.  Her story is told by others through journals and ship's logs that mention her and describe the expedition.  All we know is that she did survive.  She did not return to France for a decade or more, so one can assume that she was put off the ship and left to fend for herself until she managed to find passage home.  Her lover, Commerson, died on the return voyage on the island of Mauritius at the age of 45.

It may be that Baret embarked on this expedition with the idea that she would see far away places and be able to collect plants never before described--certainly a strong lure for anyone interested in nature. This was an incredible opportunity for anyone living during that time--to sail around the world and explore areas never before described by science. Especially for an herbalist, such as Baret, the opportunity to collect new plants with new medicinal attributes must have been exciting.

She may also have thought that going as her lover's assistant would mean that they could share in this adventure and that she would be somewhat protected by this association.  However, I imagine that whatever she anticipated initially was not what she actually encountered.  Especially the barbaric ritual she endured during the crossing of the equator.

All sailors who had never crossed the equator before were put through a horrendous hazing, described in vivid detail by Commerson in his diary.  Initiates were immersed in "the pool" a contraption constructed of sail cloth and suspended from the side of the ship, into which seawater flowed and where the seamen could be safe from sharks or drowning (this was used as a type of bathtub normally).  However, during the ritual, the pool also contained excrement from the crew and livestock (according to maritime records), and the initiates were held submerged and then coated with soot.  As the initiates struggled to avoid swallowing the vile water, other crew members would beat them back with oars and hold them underwater. Most initiates endured this ritual naked. Baret, however, could not and so her clothes and bindings would have become soaked in the filth. Once out of the pool, the initiates were then bashed about the deck by the crew swinging buckets of seawater and cat-o'-nine-tails.  One can only imagine the condition Baret was in after such an experience (Commerson's journal does not say). Commerson clearly was unable to protect her.  After this event, Baret still had two month's of sailing before they reached their first port and the opportunity to escape the confines of the ship and the crew.

It's unlikely that Baret had any comprehension of what was in store for her when she and Commerson planned their adventure.  Once committed, however, she had no recourse but to continue on the voyage...either that or be left alone in some foreign port.  Today, she would have had a choice of quitting and returning home, if things did not turn out as expected. I suspect, however, that Baret would not have quit, even if she had been offered first-class passage to return to France.

Image Credit: Life Magazine, "Cus Crossing the Line/Equator"

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