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  • 10.15.13

Help Fix Wikipedia’s Glaring Lack Of Articles About Female Scientists

Today, on Ada Lovelace Day, Wikipedia contributors will have an editing party to address the site’s conspicuous omissions of female leaders in science and tech.

It can be difficult for a society to shrug off a bad idea it’s been running with for millennia. Unequal treatment of the genders is on its way out, but many of our contemporary innovations still carry the smear of institutionalized discrimination or de facto bias.

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Take Wikipedia, for example. Despite the fact that our communal encyclopedia provides a wealth of accessible information, women make up fewer than 15% of the project’s editors. (For further information, see the Wikipedia article “Wikipedia: Systemic bias.”) Oftentimes, the lack of gender parity results in a dearth of articles about, or including, important female figures in society. That’s what science journalist and BrainPOP news director Maia Weinstock found when she started editing Wikipedia articles back in 2007: Women who should be included in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) achievement canon were simply missing from the archives. Or, when they were included, their stories were often stubs that left out the magnitude of their contributions.


In attempt to rectify some of these wrongs, Weinstock organized a Wikipedia Edit-a-thon held on last year’s Ada Lovelace day, a holiday dedicated to celebrating achievements of women in STEM fields, named for the pioneering 19th-century scientist (who, thankfully, has an extensive Wikipedia entry). Today, Weinstock is organizing another round of editing at Brown University, in which some 40 contributors will help write articles from scratch or expand stubs on women pioneers.

“We hope that this will be replicated in the future, and we’d like these things to be done every day, not just Ada Lovelace day,” Weinstock said.

Edit-a-thon has posted a list of the articles its editors seek to create and to expand during the event, and below are some highlights. They include female innovators who currently don’t exist on Wikipedia, or do exist on Wikipedia but in a very limited capacity.

Liane Brauch Russell, Geneticist


Liane Brauch Russell was born to a Jewish family in Vienna, Austria in 1923, and fled to London during World War II. She moved to the United States to pursue her studies, and after graduating from Hunter College and initiating her PhD at the University of Chicago, Russell went to work at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, which had been used to develop nuclear weapons as part of the Manhattan Project. There, Russell launched a major investigation into the effects of radiation on mice, and shed significant light on the relationship between prenatal exposure to radiation and birth defects.

Russell was the first scientist to figure out the periods of embryonic development that were critical to healthy growth of different parts of the body, according to the Department of Energy, and later won the DOE’s Enrico Fermi award for her work convincing doctors that prenatal exposure to radiation needed to be prevented. In the early ’90s, Russell also helped secure a 125,000-acre piece of land in Tennessee now dedicated to preserving the Big South Fork National River and its tributaries. She does not have a Wikipedia page.

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Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee, Activist Doctor


Dorothy Celeste Boulding Ferebee was born in the late 19th century Jim Crow South, the granddaughter of former slaves. At a time when few women, let alone African American women, were studying medicine, Ferebee graduated among the top five in her class at Tufts University Medical School, but racism barred her from obtaining internships at white hospitals. She moved from Boston to Washington, D.C., instead, where she worked at Freedmen’s Hospital (later Howard University Hospital), which was established directly after the Civil War. Eventually, Ferebee launched her own clinic by convincing trustees of a segregated medical center to open up another site, the Southeast Neighborhood House, to cater specifically to the underserved African American community on Capitol Hill.

Not only did Ferebee launch a clinic, but she also established day care at Southeast for working mothers. During the Great Depression, Ferebee directed the Mississippi Health Project, which brought smallpox and diphtheria immunizations to sharecroppers living under plantation owners’ thumbs. She held many other notable positions until her death in 1980, including an appointment from President John F. Kennedy to the council for the Food for Peace foreign aid program. Ferebee does have a Wikipedia page, but it’s brief, and leaves out much of her story and accomplishments.

Ingeborg Hochmair, Cochlear Implant Engineer


Electrical engineer Ingeborg Hochmair played a central role in developing the cochlear implant. But while she and her husband jointly founded MED-EL, a cochlear implant manufacturing company, and Ingeborg won the prestigious Lasker Award for her work, she still has no Wikipedia page. “I went to Wikipedia to learn about her, and not only does she not have a page at all, but her husband has a full page,” Weinstock said. Her husband’s page, moreover, downplays her accomplishments: “Together with his wife Ingeborg Hochmair, who holds several degrees in electrical engineering, he designed a device that was able to stimulate the fibers of the auditory nerve at several locations within the cochlea.”

Vera Kistiakowsky, Nuclear Physicist


Vera Kistiakowsky “is regarded as one of the country’s outstanding scientists in the twentieth century,” according to Mount Holyoke’s Women of Influence gallery, but she does not have a Wikipedia page. Kistiakowsky’s father, who served on President Eisenhower’s Science Advisory Committee, does have one, but the younger Kistiakowky went on to pursue a groundbreaking career in nuclear physics, too. In 1963, Kistiakowsky joined the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Laboratory for Nuclear Science, and went on to publish more than 100 articles on experimental particle physics and observational astrophysics. Kistiakowsky also helped found Boston’s WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), and launched a committee in the American Physical Society (APS) to “study the status of women physicists,” according to the Cambridge Women’s Heritage Project.

Barbara Crawford Johnson, Lunar Landing Engineer


The Apollo Lunar Landing Program had one woman on its engineering team, and that woman was Barbara Crawford Johnson, manager of Mission Requirements and Evaluation. Before she took the highest position ever to be had by a woman in the program, Johnson helped design one of the United States’ first missiles, the SM-64 Navaho. The Apollo 11 Wikipedia page doesn’t discuss Johnson’s contributions, and her own page mostly consists of a description of an episode of Mad Men on which she was mentioned.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.

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