February – LGBT+ History Month
As part of LGBT+ History Month this February, we’re sharing the accomplishments of just a few prominent scientists from the LGBTQIA+ community, past and present, in order to inspire others, and remind ourselves that attitudes are moving in the right direction.
Sara Josephine Baker, MD, DrPH was the first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene and a pioneer in public-health. At the beginning of the 20th century, New York City was in a health crisis, caused in the main by the poverty and unsafe conditions of the tenement slums. It is estimated that 4500 people were dying every week from preventable illnesses such as dysentery, typhoid and diphtheria.
Throughout her career, Baker pioneered programs which focused on disease prevention and education. She was passionate about developing the public’s understanding of science and promoting safe childcare practices. Doctor Jo, as she was known, established the Federal Children’s Bureau in 1909, which revolutionised health and hygiene for children, improving infant mortality rates across the USA. It is estimated that she saved the lives of 90,000 children in New York alone and countless others through her promotion of sanitation and preventive medicine.
Doctor Jo was also a suffragette and a feminist who was with her female life partner, the writer Ida Wylie, from 1920 until her death in 1945.
Magnus Hirschfeld laid the foundations for contemporary understandings of human sexuality and he also launched the world’s first gay rights organisation in Berlin.
In 1897, Hirschfeld established the Scientific Humanitarian Committee (SHC), which challenged homophobic prejudice, promoted research into sex and sexuality and lobbied for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. Hirschfeld also pioneered research into sex and sexuality and was the first person to organise a scientific survey of queer people. In 1919, he created the Institute for Sexual Science (ISS) which saw over 20,000 people each year and provided advice for gay and transgender people, hormonal therapies, counselling and sex reassignment surgeries. The ISS housed an extensive library, museum and archive which was plundered and destroyed in 1933, during the Nazi campaign to eliminate homosexuality in Germany. The institute was closed and Hirschfeld lived out the rest of his life in exile.
In 2015, Dr Nergis Mavalvala was among the team of scientists who first observed gravitational waves from the collision of two black holes. Gravitational waves were a previously unproven prediction by Einstein in his theory of general relativity. This discovery is set to revolutionise the way we see and understand the universe, including the direct observation of dark matter.
Originally from Lahore, Pakistan, Mavalvala moved to the United States to study physics and astronomy at Wellesley College where she completed a doctorate in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). She later joined the faculty at MIT in 2002 and was MIT’s first woman to be named Dean of Sciences in 2020.
Mavalvala is an openly gay Pakistani-American and is a strong advocate of LGBT people in STEM and challenges racial and social injustice within the sciences. She was the recipient of a MacArthur genius award in 2010 and the 2014 LGBTQ Scientist of the Year.
Keep up with the conversation by following the hashtags #LGBTplusHM, #Usualise, #educateOUTprejudice, and find out more about LGBT+ Month, here.
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