There are a few scientists who are immediately recognizable even to people outside the field. (Unfortunately, they seem to be mostly men…) It struck me that these iconic images are from later in life, when their fame was already well-established. I decided to track down and share some pictures from when they actually did the work for which we remember them.
We’ve all seen Darwin the Elder, stern-browed and enormously bearded, but he was a young man (only 22) when he left on the famous voyage of the Beagle in 1831. The portrait on the left was made sometime in the late 1830s, which was when his ideas about evolution and natural selection were still forming according to his notebooks; the one on the right is from 1874, when he was 65.
Albert Einstein’s face may be one of the most famous in the world, but he didn’t look like that when he did the work that bagged him a Nobel Prize. The photo on the left is from 1904 or 1905, when he published the paper that would eventually win him a Nobel in 1921 — not for the Theory of Relativity, as many people think, but for “his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect“. Would you have recognized him?
The more familiar portrait of an older Galileo is from 1836; he was 71 or 72 years old and under house arrest for heresy. On the left he’s pictured at the (relatively!) young age of 40 (according to the inscription), by which point he had already made major advances in the fields of motion and mechanics and been appointed professor of mathematics at the University of Padua. In the next ten years, he would go on to improve the telescope and use it to see the mountains and craters of our moon and four of Jupiter’s moons.
Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, is another one of those iconic “men with beards”. He formulated the theory of psychoanalysis in Vienna in the 1890s and continued developing it over the next several decades. The portraits here bracket this period; on the left is a photo from 1891 and on the right from 1921. I have to say, I think it’s a shame he tamed the moustache…
Marie Curie began her work on radioactivity in 1896 and won the Nobel prize in physics in 1903. The photo on the left is from 1898, when she was busy isolating polonium and discovering radium. The one on the right is from the 1920s, by which point she had won a second Nobel prize (in 1911 for chemistry), making her the first person to win two Nobel prizes and only one to have ever won the prize in two different sciences. Which of the photos do you find more familiar?
It saddens me that I couldn’t come up with more iconic women scientists for this post — not from a lack of great women scientists, but simply because their faces aren’t as familiar as the men’s. (I would have recognized Barbara McClintock and Jane Goodall but, I’m ashamed to admit, not Dorothy Hodgkin, Dian Fossey or many others.) We are pre-eminently visual creatures; images can and do play a major role in shaping our perceptions and expectations. Let’s stop reinforcing the image of great scientists as old men with impressive beards or wacky hair and instead show them as the young men and women they were, striving to understand the world around them.