This week in science history: A pioneering biochemist and feminist dies


Ruth Hubbard was the first female biologist appointed to Harvard. It changed her life. Jeff Glorfeld reports.


Ruth Hubbard, a keen critic of gender- and race-based inequalities.

Ruth Hubbard, a keen critic of gender- and race-based inequalities.

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In 1974, Ruth Hubbard became the first woman to achieve tenure as a biology professor at Harvard University in the US, but by that time she had shifted her interest from biology to gender politics.

Hubbard died on September 1, 2016. Her obituary in the Boston Globe recounted a 1990 interview in which Hubbard said that what constitutes science “usually is decided by ‘a self-perpetuating, self-reflexive group: by the chosen for the chosen’, and those ‘chosen’, historically, were ‘upper-class white men’.”

In 1981 she told the New York Times: “Women and non-white, working-class and poor men have largely been outside the process of science-making.

“Though we have been described by scientists, by and large we have not been the describers and definers of scientific reality. We have not formulated the questions scientists ask, nor have we answered them. This undoubtedly has affected the content of science, but it has also affected the social context and the ambience in which science is done.”

She was born Ruth Hoffmann in Vienna, Austria, on March 3, 1924. Fleeing Nazism, her family moved to Boston in the US. Ruth graduated from Radcliffe College in 1944, earning a degree in biochemical sciences. She married Frank Hubbard in 1942, and in 1944 went to work as a research assistant at Harvard.

Working with leading researcher George Wald, whom she married in 1958, Hubbard began studying visual pigments. A 2017 article in The Harvard Gazette says Wald had previously shown that such pigments consist of vitamin A aldehyde – now called retinaldehyde, or simply retinal – bound to a protein called opsin. Hubbard delved into the mechanism by which vitamin A transformed into retinal.

From there, she investigated how a visual pigment molecule is synthesised from retinal and opsin, and, together with other researchers, she “made the ground-breaking discovery that a specific shape of retinal is required to synthesise all visual pigments.”

In 1969, the Boston Globe reported, she encountered protesters denouncing the discrimination women in science. “I was absolutely flabbergasted,” she said. “I was a scientist. And they allowed me to work at Harvard. So how come there was discrimination?”

At that moment her focus changed. She authored and edited books about power structures in science and society. She wrote an influential essay titled “Have Only Men Evolved?” in a 1982 book, Biological Woman – The Convenient Myth, which she co-edited.

“Since women have not figured in the paradigm of evolution,” she wrote, “we need to rethink our evolutionary history.”

Her other books include The Politics of Women’s Biology (1990) and Profitable Promises: Essays on Women, Science and Health (1995).

The Harvard Gazette says Hubbard’s book, Exploding the Gene Myth (1993), co-written with her son, Elijah, “was a bracing critical examination of the ways in which genetic information is often misinterpreted by scientists and business. Ultimately, her concerns led to the basic question of who gets to do science, how the racial and gender makeup of the science community influences what subjects are explored, and who benefits from scientific achievements.”

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2016/09/04/ruth-hubbard-first-woman-tenured-biology-harvard/zdiRSECiShE4rAJaCBNNTP/story.html
  2. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/12/21/magazine/the-lives-they-lived-ruth-hubbard.html
  3. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2017/03/ruth-hubbard-wald-92/
  4. https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-010-0101-4_4
  5. https://law.stanford.edu/publications/biological-woman-the-convenient-myth-a-collection-of-feminist-essays-and-a-comprehensive-bibliography/
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