In addition to having fabulous taste in hats, Nettie Stevens is also an underappreciated scientist. She was a cytologist, embryologist, and entomologist at Bryn Mawr, where she worked with Edmund Wilson and a certain fellow you have almost certainly heard of, Thomas Hunt Morgan. In fact, she’s the person who introduced TH Morgan and Drosophila, so we would owe her just for that.
But her main claim to fame is that she’s the person who figured out all that business about X and Y chromosomes — the chromosomal basis of sex determination. Strangely, most of the genetics textbooks grant all the credit for that to TH Morgan, I can’t imagine why. Oh, wait, I can guess. When Stevens died, Morgan got to write her curiously distant obituary in Science, where he credited her with a “share” in the discovery. It’s not a terrible obit, in that he does discuss the breadth of her work, but otherwise it’s rather dry and nitpicky.*
But you know she had to be remarkable in many ways. She was a woman in a deeply sexist culture, and she was forty years old when she started studying biology in 1901, so she already had the deck stacked against her. Yet she managed to build a commendable career in just a few short years — she died in 1912 of breast cancer, just before finally getting a faculty position — and it’s a shame that what must have been a fascinating person has been lost in the rush to take credit for her work. She’s someone who deserves a bigger place in the textbooks.
*The part that annoyed me most in the obit was in the first paragraph, where he credits some of her success to the “liberality of Bryn Mawr College, which created for her a research professorship”. Was it also very generous of Bryn Mawr, Columbia, and Cal Tech to grant poor TH Morgan research positions at their institutions? It sure was liberal of them to let him in the door.