Thursday, April 19, 2018

Irene Ayako Uchida, geneticist and Down syndrome research, linked chromosomal anomalies and maternal radiation

Irene Ayako Uchida, Linocut, 9.25" x 12.5", 2018 by Ele Willoughby
My linocut portrait of Canadian geneticist Irene Ayako Uchida (1917-2013) is hand printed on 9.25" x 12.5" Japanese kozo (or mulberry) paper. Uchida is shown surrounded by chromosones, with anomalies (shown with pink arrows) due to radiation exposure, based on one of her research papers. A strand of DNA is hidden in the image (as her watchband).

Irene Uchida didn’t set out to be a scientist. She was studying English literature at UBC, before she was interned with other Canadians of Japanese heritage during WWII. Born to Japanese immigrant parents in Vancouver in 1917, young Ayako Uchida was dubbed "Irene" by her piano teacher who struggled to pronounce her name, which means "splendid" in Japanese. Her father owned two Japanese bookstores in Vancouver and young Ayako loved reading and music, playing organ, piano and violin for the United Church. She faced tragedy in her youth, first when her best friend Marion Gross was killed in a traffic accident; she wore her ring for the rest of her life. Then her sister Sachi died of tuberculosis, even after her mother brought her to Japan where she felt she would receive better medical care. These tragic experiences left Irene with a desire to help people. While at UBC, she was a reporter for weekly Japanese-Canadian newspaper The New Canadian, and was active in the group Japanese Canadian Citizens for Democracy. In 1940 she and her sister Kazuko went to Japan to visit her mother and sister Junko who were living there. She chose to leave via what proved to be the last ship to Canada out of Yokohama before the outbreak of war. Her mother and sisters were trapped in a bleak Tokyo with shortages and war rationing and remained there for years. She, her father, brother, sister-in-law and their kids were all placed in internment camps in the Rockies in the BC interior, initially together at Christina Lake. Because of her university education, her friend Hide Hyodo, Supervisor for Education for the internment camps, asked for her help. She moved to the nearby Lemon Creek camp, where she set up a school for 500 children and became its dedicated principal, turning her own shack into a library where students could study. Ariving in winter, their first task to avoid freezing to death was to patch gaps where snow and wind breached building walls.

After the war, the United Church gave her the opportunity to complete her degree at the University of Toronto. It's worth noting that after the war and until 1949, the only Japanese Canadians allowed back in Toronto were university students. Overt racism in the post-war years was not rare. Her father had returned to Japan with the repatriation program in exchange for Allied prisoners of war. Her family's bookstores and other assets had been seized and she had nothing left for her in British Columbia. She made money washing dishes and sewing in a factory on Spadina, when not in class. She apparently made enemies in her fellow seamstresses who complained she made them look bad by sewing a zipper into a woman’s skirt faster than anyone, and she was fired. She completed her BA at U of T in 1946. She planned to pursue a master's in social work but zoology professor, and soon to be director of the Department of Genetics at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Dr. Norma Ford Walker recognized her talent in an introductory genetics class and recruited her for grad school. Uchida took all her other introductory science courses while in graduate school and got her doctorate in zoology in 1951! She began her research career at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto with Dr. Walker, studying twins with genetic diseases including congenital heart disease and Down syndrome. They set up one of the largest twin registries in North America, and working with pediatricians, Irene developed such good relations with the twin subjects that they gladly participated in all her studies and volunteered for others. She stayed there until 1959.

She spent a year working on Drosophila chromosomes with Dr. Klaus Patau (who later discovered the Patau syndrome, caused by trisomy 13 or extra genetic material from chromosome 13 in some or all cells, another example of nondisjunction like Down syndrome) at the University of Wisconsin. While there, Uchida learned that French researchers had linked Down syndrome to an excess chromosome (trisomy 21) - the first time a chromosome anomaly was shown as the cause of a human disorder. She decided to find out why people had this excess chromosome. Her work attracted the attention of Harry Medovy, a pediatrician at the Winnipeg Children's Hospital, who hired her.

She brought the skills honed studying fruitfly chromosomes to Canadian hospitals when she started the first cytology department in the country, and running it for 9 years. She found extra chromosomes in babies who had birth defects. Diagnosing trisomy by actually looking directly at chromosomes in cells was a very new technique and she was the first to do this in Canada. Most importantly she made scientific history when she traced chromosomal anomalies in offspring to mothers’ prior exposure to abdominal x-rays. She compared a large number of children born to mothers before they had received diagnostic radiation to those conceived afterwards, and saw much more trisomy in those conceived afterwards. While this did not make her popular with radiologists, her research helped prevent life threatening or altering birth defects, and made her an internationally recognized geneticist. She was also amongst the scientists who discovered that the mother's genetic material was not always reponsible for a baby with Down syndrome and that one quarter of births can be linked to the father. Since the occurance of Down syndrome goes up with maternal age, it had been assumed it was linked solely to mothers.

She received a 1969 Medical Research Council grant to work as a visiting scientist at the University of London and in Harwell, England, to study a technique for analyzing the chromosomes of mouse eggs and sperm, again looking at the effects of radiation. Afterwards she was lured to McMaster University in Hamilton to work as a professor and Cytology lab director. She stayed there for 22 years, working closely with Dr. Viola Freeman, and continuing her research on the link between radiation and chromosonal anomalies, travelling around Ontario to gather samples from Down syndrome child patients and their parents. She also started a Genetic Counselling Program at the McMaster Medical Centre. Her last job was Director of Cytogenetics at the Oshawa General Hospital, 1991–1995. Since one of the X chromosomes is always naturally deactivated in female embryos, Uchida hoped that one day geneticists will learn to deactivate one of the chromosomes in an individual with trisomy (at 21, 13 or 18) and be able to cure them at an early embryonic stage; this sort of research is only just starting, decades after her hopeful prediction.

She was a world expert in Down syndrome, President of the American Society of Human Genetics, served on the Science Council of Canada, received honourary degrees from McMaster and Western universities, was named Woman of the Century 1867-1967 by the National Council of Jewish Women, in Manitoba, an Officer of the Order of Canada, had a lifelong love of language and grammar, and a wry sense of humour. Not a fan of public speaking to large groups of peers, she never turned down a chance to speak with children. She was a dedicated if exacting teacher and mentor to many graduate students and post-docs. She did not have a family of her own but was generous with her neices, often taking them along on international travel. She was one of the people who fought tirelessly for reparations the 20,000 Japanese-Canadian internees, finally granted four decades later in 1988 when each of the survivors received $21,000 and reinstatement of Canadian citizenship if they had been deported. She donated $50,000 to the Winnipeg hospital for a biannual genetics lecture. She was fun if brusque, opinionated though humble, described as feisty and was known as a gracious hostest who believed the only drink worth having was a Glenfiddich single malt with one ice cube, and a truly extraordinary individual.

Irene Uchida, Wikipedia, accessed April 17, 2018
Irene Ayako Uchida - Genetics: World Famous Down Syndrome Researcher, article accessed April 17, 2018
Terry Watada, "Irene Uchida: Seeing the Truly Wonderful", Toronto NAJC
Terry Watada, "Irene Uchida: Seeing the Truly Wonderful", The Bulletin, August 30, 2013
I A Uchida, C P Lee, and E M Byrnes, Chromosome aberrations induced in vitro by low doses of radiation: nondisjunction in lymphocytes of young adults., Am J Hum Genet. 1975 May; 27(3): 419–429.
Olesia Plokhii, 'Irene Uchida, world-renowned leader in genetics research', Globe and Mail, Published September 13, 2013, Updated March 26, 2017
Ronald G. Davidson, Irene A. Uchida, 1917–2013, Journal List, Am J Hum Genetv.93(4); 2013 Oct 3PMC3791260
'Irene Uchida: World-class scientist was known for her enthusiasm,' Network, McMaster Faculty of Health Sciences Newsmagazine — Volume 8, Issue 1, Fall 2014
Daniel Nolan, "Passages: Renowned geneticist began from scratch after internment - Dr. Irene Ayako Uchida — April 8, 1917 to July 30, 2013", Hamilton Spectator, Sep 08, 2013

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Dr. Maud Menten, pioneer of enzyme kinetics, histochemistry, electrophoresis, adventurer and artist

Maud Menten, linocut 9.25" x 12.5" by Ele Willoughby, 2018
Canadian medical researcher Maud Menten (1870-1960) has been called the "grandmother of biochemistry" and "a radical feminist 1920s flapper," and a "petite dynamo." Not only was she an author of Michaelis-Menten equation for enzyme kinetics (like the plot in indigo in my portrait), she invented the azo-dye coupling for alkaline phosphatase, the first example of enzyme histochemistry,  still used in histochemistry imaging of tissues today (which inspired the histology background of the portrait), and she also performed the first electrophoretic separation of blood haemoglobin in 1944!

Born in Port Lambton, Ontario, she studied at the University of Toronto, earning her bachelor's in 1904, and then graduated from medical school (M.B., bachelor's of medicine) in 1907. She published her first paper with Archibald Macallum, the Professor of Physiology at U of T (who went on to set up the National Research Council of Canada), on the distribution of chloride ions in nerve cells in 1906. She worked a year at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, where along with Simon Flexner, first director of the Institute, she co-authored a book on radium bromide and cancer, the first publication produced by the Institute - barely 10 years after Marie Curie had discovered radium. She completed the first of two fellowships at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University), then she earned a doctorate in medical research in 1911 at U of T. She was one of the first Canadian women to earn such an advanced medical degree.* She then moved to Berlin (travelling by boat, unfazed by the recent sinking of the Titanic) to work with Leonor Michaelis. Together they looked at enzyme-catalyzed reactions, found they occured at a rate proportional to the amount of the enzyme-substrate complex, and developed their famous equation for rate as a function of substrate. This work was critical to understanding how enzymes work and helped scientists develop means of blocking enzyme reactions (such as drugs like statins which inhibit enzymes which make cholesterol).

She returned to North America and studied cancer from 1913 to 1914 in laboratory of the great surgeon George W. Crile at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University), in Cleveland. She completed a second doctorate in biochemistry at the University of Chicago in 1916. She was unable to find any good research opportunities for women in Canada at the time, so in 1923 she joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh as a demonstrator in pathology and also served as a clinical pathologist at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh. She held three positions at Children's Hospital involved: surgical pathologist, post-mortem pathologist, and haematologist. Despite holding these multiple demanding jobs she authored more than 100 papers. She discovered the utility of immunization of animals against infectious diseases. In 1944 she was the first to use electric fields to separate different proteins in a mixture based on size - a method called electrophoresis - to separate blood haemoglobin. Her wartime paper received far less attention than later work by Linus Pauling, to the point that this discovery is commonly misattributed to Pauling. Here is yet another example of the Matilda effect, where accomplishments of women in science are often forgotten and attributed to more famous men. This method remains a mainstay of lab techniques for biological systems. She characterised bacterial toxins from B. paratyphosus, Streptococcus scarlatina and Salmonella ssp. then successfully used in an immunisation program against scarlet fever in Pittsburgh during the 30's and 40's. Her research focused on pathology, nucleic acids, tumour cells, scarlet fever, bacterial toxins, and pneumonia. She was known as an outstanding hospital pathologist and teacher, who insisted on excellence in research and who had great compassion for the sick. In due course she was promoted to assistant professor (1923),  and associate professor (1925), but did not reach the rank of full professor until 1949 when she was 70, one year prior to retirement. She had retained her Canadian citizenship throughout her time abroad and on retirement promptly moved home to Canada, joined the British Columbia Medical Research Institute and worked three more years, as long as her health would allow. Arthritis forced her second retirement at 75 and she died at 81 in Leamington, Ontario, a 100 km from ber birthplace.

A painting by Maud Menten
Menten never married or had a family, as mothers were usually prohibited from research, but when not revolutionizing biochemistry and medicine she lead a very full life. She was notorious for driving her Model T Ford badly through the University of Pittsburgh campus from 1918 to 1950. She played the clarinet. She mastered six languages including Russian, French, German, Italian, and Halkomelem of the indigenous Coast Salish, which she learned from school friends during her teens in Harrison Mills, British Columbia, where her father was a ferry boat captain. She was a mountain climber and once went on an Arctic expedition. She was an avid amateur astronomer. I am most charmed that she is yet another example of a scientist who was also an artist. She was a talented oil painter, painting colourful and detailed landscapes, still-life works and florals and she exhibited her paintings.

The University of Pittsburgh, so slow to promote her to full professor, now has a yearly lecture and professorship named in her honour. In 1998 she was inducted into the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame and has been honoured by a memorial plaque at the University of Toronto.  Her obituary in Nature, by Aaron H. Stock and Anna-Mary Carpenter states, "Menten was untiring in her efforts on behalf of sick children. She was an inspiring teacher who stimulated medical students, resident physicians and research associates to their best efforts. She will long be remembered by her associates for her keen mind, for a certain dignity of manner, for unobtrusive modesty, for her wit, and above all for her enthusiasm for research." It is astonishing that she is not a household name as her tremendous accompliments are still central to research today.

*There is some confusion about which degrees she earned, likely because the 1911 Doctor of Medicine degree (M.D.) - equivalent to today's PhD in medicine, was renamed a few years later when a first degree (previously a Bachelor's of Medicine or B.M.) in medicine became an M.D. degree. One source claims she earned three PhDs: in medicine, pathology and biochemistry.


'A Moment in Canadian History' on the Canadian Medical Hall of Fame website, Dr. Maud Menten accessed April 12, 2018

'The Mystery of Maud Menten' on Laurence A. Moran's blog "Sandwalk: Strolling with a skeptical biochemist" accessed April 12, 2018

'Leonor Michaelis and Maud Leonora Menten', Science History Institude, accessed April 12, 2018

Nicolle Hodges, 'Maud Menten: Science Rules', Montecristo Magazine, accessed April 12, 2018

Maud Menten, Wikipedia, accessed April 12, 2018

Tonny Huang, 'Canadian Pioneers in Science: Maud Menten,' June 29, 2017

Rebecca Skloot, 'Pediatric Pathology - Some Called Her Miss Menten' from PITTMED, October 2000, Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, accessed April 18, 2018

'Pediatric Pathology - About Maud L. Menten, MD, PhD,' Department of Pathology, University of Pittsburgh, accessed April 18, 2018

Kara Rogers, 'Maud Leonora Menten: Canadian biochemist and organic chemist'  Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Last Updated:

'Menten, Maud L.' Encyclopedia of World Biography COPYRIGHT 2004 The Gale Group Inc.

Peter G. Mahaffy, Chemistry, Page 762, 2014 -

Maud L. Menten and George A. McCloskey, 'Histopathology and Etiology of Pneumonia in Children Dying after Antibacterial Therapy' Am J Pathol. 1951 Jun; 27(3): 477–491.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Harriet Brooks, Nuclear Physicist

Harriet Brooks, linocut 9.25" x 12.5" by Ele Willoughby, 2018
When physicists first stumbled upon the phenomenon of radioactivity and shockingly found themselves becoming modern-day alchemists, at the turn of the last century, a promising young Canadian woman made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the nascent field of nuclear physics. Ernest Rutherford (later Lord Rutherford the Nobel laureate) recruited Harriet Brooks (1876 - 1933) while he was working at McGill University in Montreal. Rutherford, now considered one of the giants of early 20th century physics, was a frank New Zealander, known for his dry humour who famously described all of science as either physics or "stamp collecting". I do not imagine he was generous with his compliments, but he stated that Brooks was second only to Marie Curie in her capacity for and understanding of radioactivity. An excellent research physicist, Rutherford was clearly a dedicated and thoughtful supervisor who knew talent when her saw it.

Born July 2, 1876, in Exeter, Ontario, Harriet was one of nine children. Her family was not wealthy and after her father's flour mill burned down and was not covered by insurance, occasionally food was a bit scarce. Only she and her sister Elizabeth, who both had an aptitude for mathematics, attended university. Harriet entered McGill in 1894, only 6 years after the university had admitted its first female student. She graduated in 1898 with a B.A. in mathematics and natural science just as Rutherford arrived from England. He took her on as his first graduate student. He was careful not to assign her a problem in the new and technically difficult field of radioactivity right away, because he felt it was important that young researchers have some appreciated and acknowledged success at the beginning of their carreers, or they might become mistakenly disappointed in their abilities. So after publishing her results in 1899 in the Transactions of the Canadian section of the Royal Society, Harriet completed her master's degree in 1901 on the "Damping of Electrical Oscillations," before embarking on radioactivity research. As a promising researcher, she was appointed a non-resident mathematics tutor for the new women's college Royal Victorian College at McGill in 1899.

Apparatus and schematics of their thorium emanations research, Cabinet B of the Rutherford Museum at McGill

Assigned to on the puzzle of the thorium "emanation" she discovered some of the earliest evidence of transmutation! At that time, physicists knew that some elements gave off alpha particles (which we now know are helium nuclei, two protons and two neutrons bound together), beta particles (which we now know are electrons) and gamma rays, but these "emanations" were different. They knew it might be a radioactive gas, vapour or even a fine powder, but she concluded that it must be a gas of lower atomic weight than thorium - something chemists of the day believed impossible. She co-authored the paper with Rutherford, "The New Gas from Radium" in 1901. This new gas was Radon. She went on to work on measuring the atomic mass of this new gas. Assigning the discovering of a new element to a given individual, especially at this heady time, is tricky, though history is often told much more simply. Some argue that Friedrich Ernst Dorn discovered the element, as he published that Radium compounds emanate a radioactive gas he named Radium Emanation (Ra Em) in 1900. This however, is merely an observation of the existence of a specific isotope of Radon. Rutherford and Brooks themselves credited the Curies for first observing the "emanation".  Today, many credit Rutherford with the "true" discovery of Radon as an element (i.e. a "New Gas"), though he himself was always careful to reference Brooks' work. Between his sole-authored Nature paper of 1901, and his towering reputation, Brooks' role in this discovery was been largely forgotten for decades and only recently, has her role been rediscovered.* While the complete story is messy, a strong case can be made that Harriet Brooks discovered Radon, a new element with a lower atomic mass. It is incontestable that she was amongst the first in the world to observe any form of the element and to attempt to measure its atomic mass.

This 2015 issue of the Canadian Journal of Physics had the cover caption:  Harriet Brooks, pioneering Canadian nuclear physicist, discovered radon in 1901. Her Ph.D. supervisor, Ernest Rutherford, compared her to Marie Curie. On the faculty of Barnard College, she was forced to resign when she became engaged, as marriage was forbidden for female faculty, a great loss to physics (photo courtesy of Wm. Notman & Son; II-123880, McCord Museum).
Brooks proceeded to pursue a doctorate at the famous woman's college Bryn Mawr. She won the President's European Fellowship to go spend 1902-1903 in Cambridge working with (future Nobel laureate) J.J. Thomson. Thomson lacked Rutherford's dedication to guiding young researchers and largely left her on her own. She, like many, especially women, before or since, suffered from impostor syndrome and described herself as "a terrible bungler in research work" in a letter to Rutherford. She wildly underestimated her own skills and accomplishments and was hindered by Thomson's erroneous belief at the the time that radioactivity was a chemical process.** Nontheless, Brooks she made the first measurement of the half-life of Radon (her value: 1 minute, versus the modern value of 55 seconds) while working in Thomson's lab.

Instead of returning to Bryn Mawr to complete her doctorate, she went back to McGill to work with Rutherford for a year. Her biographers Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham suggest this may have due to her loss of confidence. While back at McGill, she noticed what she called the 'volatility' of radioactive substances, and how a non-radioactive plate placed in a radioactive container would become radioactive. She was seeing the first evidence of her discovery of atomic recoil. When the radioactive element emitted an alpha particle in one direction, the daughter nuclei would be propelled in the opposite direction - sometimes with such force that they became embedded in the plate (which hence becomes radioative). This method was later used by Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner to separate daugther nuclei and identify new elements. Hahn (who alone was granted the Nobel for the discover of nuclear fission he and Meitner made)*** claimed to have discovered atomic recoil, but Rutherford wrote to him to point out it was in fact Brooks. During this time she also charted the decays of Thorium, Radium, and Actinium and discovered not only did radioactive elements transmutate into new elements, but that these products in turn decayed, laying the groundwork for the discovery of nuclear decay series. She published her results in 1904.

One of the important examples of a nuclear decay series showing how various Uranium isotopes can transmutate in a series of reaction (i.e. to Thorium to Radium to Radon...)

In 1904, she became a physics tutor at Columbia's women's college Barnard College. She met physics professor Bergen Davis, fell in love and they became engaged in 1906. The dean Laura Gill demanded her resignation, insisting she couldn't be both a physicist and a wife. Brooks protested, writing, "I think also it is a duty I owe to my profession and to my sex to show that a woman has a right to the practice of her profession and cannot be condemned to abandon it merely because she marries." The head of physics Margaret Maltby defended Brooks and her tremendous skills as a teacher and experimentalist, but the dean insisted she had to choose. Brooks ultimately broke off the engagement, and then nonetheless resigned due to the stress. She then took a step away from the scientific life.

In 1906 she spent her summer with the Fabian socialists at Summerbrook, the utopian commune established by Prestonia Mann Martin in the Adirondacks. She fell in with Marxist writer Maxim Gorky, his (then mistress, eventual second wife) Maria Andreyeva and their entourage and ended up, after a visit to Montreal, travelling with the couple by ship from New York to Naples and Capri! Eventually she seems to have bored of this and went to work with Marie Curie in Paris. Curie offered her a position for another year, but Rutherford, who was returning to England to work in Manchester offered her a fellowship. She accepted, but then suddenly withdrew. While in Montreal she had become reaquainted with her engineering tutor Frank Pitcher. He had been writing her ever since insisting that she should marry him as he could provide a stable future. She had been encouraged by her friends Mrs. Mary Rutherford (Ernest's wife) and Prestonia Martin (who both harboured strong traditional ideas about marriage) and she had ultimately gave in and accepted his proposal. He promptly took off on a mountain climbing tour of Europe, insisted on a religious ceremony despite her wishes and left her to return to Montreal and plan the wedding.

They had three children, but tragically lost one to spinal meningitis in childhood and a second to suicide while a student at McGill. Brooks, now Mrs. Frank Pitcher, never returned to research but took on the vocation of upper middle-class wife and mother until her premature death of leukimia at age 56, likely due to her exposure to Radon. She lived a quiet life after her remarkable 6 year science career, gardening and corresponding with those who had known her when she had been young and free. The social pressures and mores of the time, robbed physics of one of its bright lights.

Schematic electron shell diagram for Radon

I put a lot of thought into how to portray her. There is only a single, easily found, clear photo of her during her scientific career - her graduation photo. Showing her with a schematic diagram of Radon, like the photoillustration used by the Canadian Journal of Physics, seems an obvious choice. I considered that, and also, showing Thorium decaying to Radium to Radon, to allude to her discovery of Radon and chains of transmutations. However while these diagrams of atom are very graphic and make for an interesting image, they're misleading in a few ways. First, by showing the electron shells, we focus on chemistry and what's beyond the nucleus (and neither were what Brooks and colleagues were studying). Secondly, neither the nucleus nor electrons had been discovered during her time, so this is anarchronistic. I thought of showing nuclei undergoing alpha decay, and the daughters likewise decaying (more like my portrait of Lise Meitner), but this too whould be anachronistic; prior to 1906, no one had any idea there were protons and neutrons. So, I specifically showed what she discovered - atomic recoil - and depicted it simply, as it way understood at the time. I show Radium (just as a particle) spontaneously give off an alpha particle in one direction and emitting Radon in the other (what we now call the daughter nuclei). I chose this specific reaction to also reference her discovery of Radon itself. I considered showing the actual apparatus she used to investigate "Thorium emanations" since it's quite amazing that McGill has preserved these and posted photos online, but on its own it doesn't tell much of the story (unless you are already well-versed in the early history of research on radioactivity). I thought about showing our modern understanding of radioactive decay series (like the Uranium series above) but that also would have been anarchronistic. To allude to her third discovery, that these transmutations can occur in chains of reactions, at the bottom I have included a diagram that Rutherford published in 1905, labelled as the team at McGill then understood it: Radium gives off  an alpha particle and produces the "Emanation" (now Radon) which in turn gives off an alpha particle to produce "Radium A" (now Polonium), and a series of further transmutations by giving off alpha or beta or gamma particles and producing subsequent daughter nuclei, which at the time were simply labelled "Radium B" through "Radium F".  Her discoveries and work in collaboration with Rutherford, Thomson, Curie and others helped form the foundation for the entire field of nuclear physics and I hope my portrait can help bring her some of the attention she deserves as an important pioneer of the field.

* Chemists and biographers Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham point out the Matthew Effect (named by historian of science Robert Merton) where discoveries are often misattributed to a nearby more famous scientist. Consider the famous 'Rutherford Gold Foil Experiment', for instance, which was actually performed by his graduate students Geiger and Marsden, but by that time he had received the Nobel in chemistry "for his investigations into the disintegration of the elements, and the chemistry of radioactive substances." Historian of science Margaret Rossiter notes this Matthew Effect most commonly targets women and proposes the term Matilda Effect for the erasure of women from memory and the history of science.

Brooks could be poster child for the Matilda Effect.

** Famously pompous Thomson also disbelieved geological evidence for the age of the Earth, because thermal physics suggested the Earth might have cooled within a few thousand years (more in line with the Bible)... unless there was some other source of heat. There was: radioactivity. Remember, in fairness, at this time, neither the nucleus not the electron had been discovered. You may recall being taught Thomson's "raisin bun" model of the atom.

*** Unlike Pierre Curie, who threated to refuse the Nobel when he discovered that only he and Becquerel (and not Marie Curie) were to be credited with discovery of radioactivity, Otto Hahn did not insist that Meitner be included in his Nobel win (nor for that matter did he stand up for their assistant Fritz Straßmann). We now know that Meitner was nominated for a Nobel prize 47 times! 

It was mathematician Gösta Mittag-Leffler who alerted Pierre. An early ally to women in science, Gösta Mittag-Leffler also helped mathematician Sofia Kovalevski secure a position as a privat-docent at Stockholm University in Sweden in 1884. Kovalevski developed an intimate "romantic friendship" with his sister, actress, novelist, and playwright Duchess Anne-Charlotte Edgren-Leffler, with whom she lived collaborated on works of literature, for the remainder of her too short life.


"The Unstable Nucleus and its uses" American Institute of Physics exhibit on Marie Curie and the Science of Radioactivity - Radioactivity, accessed March 28, 2018

Emanations from Thorium and Radium Rutherford Museum at McGill, acessed March 28, 2018

Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham, "HARRIET BROOKS(1876-1933): CANADA'S FIRST WOMAN PHYSICIST" LA PHYSIQUE AU CANADA, 2005 -

Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham, comment on RUTHERFORD, THE “TRUE DISCOVERER OF RADON”, Bull. Hist. Chem., VOLUME 29, Number 2 (2004)

Elizabeth Shearly, Harriet Brooks, pioneering Canadian nuclear physicist, The Canadian Science Publishing blog, accessed March 28, 2018

John Geddes, Why Harriet Brooks Fits the Bill, Macleans, March 6, 2016

Ingrid Birker, Remembering Harriet Brooks: Canada’s first female nuclear physicist, McGill Reporter, March 8, 2011

"Harriet Brooks (1876-1933): Radioactivity", accessed March 28, 2018

Brooks, Harriet (1876–1933) Women in World History: A Biographical Encyclopedia
COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Research Inc.

Dale DeBakcsy, Wither: The Many Triumphs and Long Fall of Nuclear Physicist Harriet Brooks. (Women in Science 71), August 24, 2016

Harriet Brooks (Mrs. Frank Pitcher), Obituary, Nature 131, 865 (17 June 1933), doi:10.1038/131865a0

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pink Fairy Armadillo - What the Fukunushi?

Pink fairy armadillo, 11" x 13", multimedia by Ele Willoughby, 2018

I'm taking part in Graven Feather's collaboration with the Japanese Paper Place, the 'What the Fukunishi?' exhibit from March 21 through April 1 at 906 Queen St West, Toronto

Exhibition hours: Thursday, Friday, Saturday 12-6pm & Sunday 12-4pm. Inspired by their description of these rose and pale yellow fukunishi papers as being "an excellent support material for a huge variety of medias and techniques" I decided to mix it up. This piece combines linocut, collage and colour pencil to show the adorable sand swimmer, the pink fairy armadillo, a tiny armoured mammal, also known as a pichiciego or Chlamyphorus truncatus, who lives in desserts or xerix scrublands of central Argentina. These uncommon tiny armadillos are only 90–115 mm (3.5–4.5 in) long, subterranean and nocturnal. They are rarely seen and their numbers are declining, due to farming, hunting and predation from domestic pets. Sadly they do not survive long in captivity. Its giant forepaws allow it to dig its burrow and explain it's nickname, the "sand-swimmer". 
You can also find a series of prints in my shop of just the animal itself.
Pink Fairy Armadillo I, linocut and collage on washi paper, 12" x 8", Ele Willoughby, 2018

Friday, March 9, 2018

Merit Ptah, Ancient Egyptian Chief Physician

Merit Ptah, Chief Physician, linocut by Ele Willoughby, 11" x 14", 2018

Since it's Women's History Month, I thought I would like to add another women to my series of STEM portraits. I'm also interested in adding more women of colour to my collection; if women in the history of science are too often invisible, this is doubly so for WOC, who of course have been granted fewer opportunities to participate in science, throughout history. It turns out that the earliest recorded woman in science was a woman of colour and one of the earliest known person in STEM at all. Merit Ptah ("beloved of [the god] Ptah") lived circa 2700 BCE and was chief physician of the pharoah's court, implying not only that she was recognized as a doctor, who attended the pharoah, but that she trained and supervised other doctors, during the Second or Third Dynasty of Ancient Egypt.

This image is the first to come up for a Google image
search of Merit Ptah, but that dude is wearing a kilt.
Very little is known about Merit Ptah. Her image and an inscription left on her grave by her son, a Chief Priest, is found in Saqqara in Egypt's Valley of Kings. He describes her as the Chief Physician. I don't believe there exist any other known text or images relating to her. So researching her and figuring out how I could portray her was a challenge. In fact, I have not been able to find the portrait of her which can be found in Saqqara - or at least, I can not find an image I am convinced is in fact actually her. Since she is regarded as the earliest known woman in STEM, there are many articles about her, but they all seem to repeat the information above and they are illustrated with unconvincing images. I try to be cautious, as a scientist, to check references, and I know that sometimes when scientists write the history of science, they make mistakes that historians might have avoided. (Occassionally I read history of science where the converse is true, and I wish authors either had more pertinent science training or worked with scientists in the field to identify questions to ask and answer... but suspect scientists who over-estimate their knowledge of history are more common).

This image, and ones like it, are often used to illustrate
articles about Merit Ptah. These authors have done better.
I think this is a woman named Merit Ptah, but the complexity 
of the New Kingdom carving, her elaborate hairdo and crown 
reveal her as the wife of Ramsose and not the physician who
lived a millenium earlier!
I care about the history of science and want to do it justice, and am aware I lack training in history, or in this case Egyptology... though I was helped by the fact that I happened to have taken an undergraduate course in Ancient Egyptian Religion! So, I did have a bit of general knowlege about ancient Egypt which helped me avoid some of the misinformation out there. The first thing that people often miss is that Ancient Egyptian civilization spans more than three and a half thousand years, and it cannot all be lumped together. One funny fact that I recalled was that Egyptologists are able to date an image of people by variations in hair styles; my professor showed us an image of members of a royal family of a certain era and pointed out that the pharoah's wife had the latest hair style while her mother-in-law was still sporting that of a bygone era! Plus ça change... So, knowing that Merit Ptah can be confused for another woman of the same name, Merit-Ptah, the wife of Ramose, the Governor of Thebes and Vizier under Akhenaten, a full millenium later, I knew to consider her hair and dress when looking at images purporting to be of the physician.

Like hair styles, fashion also evolved and gives us a clue to era. This is a bit harder for a non-specialist to identify, since the basics of Ancient Egyptian dress did remain pretty similar for thousands of years. Both women and men often sported long hair and wore kolh around their eyes. The well-known Egyptian eye was not just for fashion. It served as sound preventative medicine as it helped protect against infections of the eye like conjuctivitis. In general, men wore kilts and women wore shealth dresses and shawls. But even just knowing this fact makes me question an image many articles claim is a bas relief of Merit Ptah; I'm pretty sure it depicts a man!

So after spending a few fruitless days seeking a contemporary portrait of Merit Ptah, I decided my best bet was to research medicine and doctors in Ancient Egypt, related hieroglyphs and images of women from the Second Dynasty. I sought images of non-royal women of status as well as researching the history of fashion, so that I could produce a plausible portrait, if not her likeness.

I've selected to use hieroglyphs to indicate who is shown and her role. I have taken some artistic license and hope that this is reasonably accurate. Luckily for me, ancient Egyptians were not hung up on careful spelling and were pretty flexible in their use of hieroglyphics, so I hope that my combination gleaned from different sources is reasonably accurate. It's not hard to find the name of the god Ptah in hieroglyphs but I was unsure if I just needed to append "beloved". Luckily the French wikipedia has an entry for the given name Méryt-Ptah name here which includes the hieroglyphs I've printed horizontally. I have her title vertically. From what I've read, I inferred that the inscription about Merit Ptah likely read "wer swnwt per aa" where "wer" means chief and I believe can be indicated by the swallow, "swnwt" is the feminine form of doctor, indicated by the arrow, pot and half-circle (for the feminine -t suffix), and "per aa" means great house or palace (the sort of rectangle with a opening is house and the last irregular shape indicated great).
Some the earliest doctors recorded were moreorless contemporaries of Merit Ptah. Polymath Imhotep (late 27th century BCE) was ultimately deified and the Greeks identified him with their own god of medicine, Asklepios, so it is assumed he was a physician, though there is little hard evidence of this. Hesy-Ra (3rd Dynasty, 2687-2649 BCE) lived roughly the same time and is identified as both official and dentist. The fact that there were dentists at this time gives us a hint that there were already different medical specialists. Others include ophthalmologist, gastroenterologist, and proctologist; midwives were separate from doctors and all female.  There is a second female doctor of the Old Kingdom, whose name is preserved: Peseshet (5th Dynasty, 2465-2323, later than Merit Ptah), "lady overseer of the female physicians" is often also identified as the earliest known female doctor, though some argue she might have been an overseer without being a doctor (which strikes me a bending over backwards to be extra skeptical of women participating in science... surely Occam's Razor would favour the hypothesis that the overseer of doctors would be a doctor? Though I suppose a Minister of Health might be more of an administrator than a doctor). Ancient Egyptian society was quite hierarchichal and there were a variety of different titles and ranks for doctors, which cannot be easily sorted out or matched with our modern categories.

Did Ancient Egyptian medicine warrant the name? That is, was it scientific? Well, while doctors were often a special sort of priest, and much of their practice involved their religious beliefs and sympathetic magic, there was indeed many ways in which Ancient Egyptian medicine was quite advanced for the ancient world, and admired by people from contemporary civilizations. They had no concept of the germ theory of disease, but luckily cleanliness was demanded of the priestly class and Egyptians in general bathed and purified their bodies often, and shaved their body hair as a means to fend off disease. The word for doctor is swnw (or swnwt for a woman; the suffix -t makes a word feminin, the way -e can make the feminine form of a French word) and is sometimes simplified as just the arrow symbol, indicating that doctors were initially the arrow-pullers, the people who treated those injured in battle. Compassion for the suffering was an important moral consideration as they believed they would be judged on their morality through life when they reached the afterlife. Curing a patient would increase a doctor's standing but failing to do so was not viewed as a moral failing. Both surgery and prosthetics were part of ancient Egyptian medicine. There is a beautiful relief from the Temple of Kom Ombo showing surgical instruments, but this was made thousands of years after Merit Ptah's time. The oldest surgical tools discovered are from the 6th Dynasty. (I avoided showing Merit Ptah as a surgeon since the 6th Dynasty occurred about 300 years later.) The mummification and ritual autopsy of human and animal corpses meant that ancient Egyptians had an extensive understanding of anatomy and generally managed to correctly infer the roles of major organs (though famously not the brain). They did prescribe medicines (which helps document their treatments and ancient pharmaceuticals). They are known to have used 160 distinct plant products for their medicinal uses. I think this indicates enough overlap with our own ideas about science and medicine to call Merit Ptah the earliest recorded woman in STEM (and to depict her offering medicine).


Merit Ptah, wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
Méryt-Ptah (médecin dans l'Égypte antique), wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
27th-century BC women,  wikipedia entry accessed March, 201827th-century BC women, 
Ancient Egyptian Clothing,  wikipedia entry accessed March, 2018
Ancient Egyptian Costume History, Decoration and Coloring,  Costume and fashion history. Traditional Historical clothes, accessed March 2018
Tom Tierney, Ancient Egyptian Fashions, Mineola, N.Y.: Dover. p. 2. ISBN 9780486408064.
Ancient Egyptian Medicine, wikipedia entry accessed March 2018
Ancient Egyptian Medicine, from Ancient Egypt Online, accessed March, 2018
Aleksandrovna, J.O and Lvovna, M.G, The Social status of physicians in Ancient Egypt. Istoriya meditsiny (History of Medicine), 2015. Vol 2, No. 1, pp. 55-71.
Histoire de la médecine en Egypte ancienne, website accessed March, 2018
J.F. Nunn, The doctor in Ancient Egypt 
John F. Nunn, Ancient Egyptian Medicine, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002

Bruno Halioua, and Bernard Ziskind, Medicine in the Days of the Pharaohs, London Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2005. ISBN: 0674017021 9780674017023
H.W. Jansen, A History of Art, 3rd Edition, Harry N. Abrams, 1986

Friday, March 2, 2018

Wilhelm Röntgen reveals his own skeleton

First layer of my Wilhelm Röntgen linocut portrait

Wilhelm Röntgen, thermochromic linocut by Ele Willoughby
Been working on some more Röntgen prints! Wilhelm Röntgen (or Roentgen, without the umlaut), 1845-1923, the German physicist who discovered x-rays, earned the Nobel Prize for physics in 1901. I've depicted him at work, studying this mysterious, newly discovered, invisible form of light, based on a photograph of him in his lab, using a Crookes tube to produce x-rays. The form of the print mimics the nature of his discovery - much as x-rays reveal the skeleton within, the thermochromic ink in which Wilhelm Röntgen is printed dispears when heated to reveal his skeleton below!

Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays using the Crookes tube in 1895. A Crookes tube is an early experimental electrical discharge tube, invented by English physicist William Crookes and others around 1869-1875, in which cathode rays, streams of electrons, were discovered. Despite his efforts to block the light from the tube with cardboard, during his experiments, he noticed that the invisible cathode rays (electrons) caused a fluorescent effect on a small cardboard screen painted with barium platinocyanide when it was placed close to the aluminium window in the tube. Some sort of light was passing through the opaque cardboard and Röntgen speculated that a new kind of ray might be responsible. He called these unknown rays 'x-rays'. We now know that x-rays can be produced when electrons strike a metal target, through a process called Bremsstrahlung (or 'the braking of radiation'). During further tests of the interaction of these rays with metals, he saw the image of his own ghostly skeleton on the barium platinocyanide screen. Within two weeks he had taken the first x-ray photograph: an image of his wife Anna Bertha's hand, inventing the entire field of radiology and medical imaging!

Thermochromic ink changes colour with temperature. If you heat the print above about 30°C ( 86 F) Röntgen will go colourless and disappear, to reveal his skeleton. By using, for instance, a hair dryer, it's possible to see Röntgen's skeleton. It's a metaphor for x-rays!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Niels Bohr, the Bohr-Rutherford atom and Balmer series, take 2

Niels Bohr, 2nd edition, 11" x 17" linocut print, 2018 by Ele Willoughby

I've just printed a new edition of my portrait of quantum physicist Niels Bohr (1885-1962). One of his most famous contributions to quantum mechanics was the Bohr-Rutherford model of the atom. Bohr is shown next to the Bohr model of the Hydrogen atom (all the concentric circles are actually at the appropriate spacing, proportional to the n squared, which probably reflects on my sanity in some way). Bohr proposed that the orbits of electrons were somewhat like planetary orbits (though circular, and at specific quantized distances). To explain how orbitting charged electrons didn't lose energy and annihilate spectacularly with the so-called "spiral death" (physicists are big on melodrama, I'm telling you), he stipulated that perhaps they simply weren't allowed anywhere but the specific orbits. They could lower their energy state if excited by falling to a lower orbit, giving off a specific photon of a specific colour related to the difference between energy levels. This also explained how the spectra of gases had distinct, thin, spectral lines. I've illustrated this with the Balmer series - because it is composed of lines which are visible to the eye (H-alpha is red and caused by a jump from the 3rd to 2nd orbit; H-beta is cyan and caused by a jump from the 4th to 2nd orbit; H-gamma is indigo and caused by a jump from the 5th to 2nd orbit; and H-delta is violet and caused by a jump from the 6th to 2nd orbit). I've shown both the quantum jumps (squiggly arrows - squiggly lines are tradition for photons) and by the line spectrum below Bohr.

Confession: In the first edition, the model of the atom was behind him. It turns out that if your four year old beloved son/tyrant wakes you in the middle of the night and keeps you up for some time, you probably aren't with it enought to try and print a 6 colour linocut with a tricky registration. I didn't change this print based on an aesthetic decision. I simply messed up the layout but decided to run with it. I decided I like it this way.