Alice Lee and discrediting the andocentric assumptions of craniology : Victorian Woman of Science

A Victorian-era Illustration made to support the Pseudoscience of Craniology

Oh, Alice Lee suffered all the trials and tribulations of being a female scientist in the Victorian era. Her results were denigrated, refused publication, and she was even accused of taking credit for male colleagues’ work. But she is an excellent example of how one scientist can change the course of history, by sticking to the facts.

Alice Lee’s field of research was craniometry, which is the measurement of skulls, and from that, the measurement of the size of brains. Craniology was part of the study the morphology of the human body. Using craniology, Victorian-era  anthropologists made hypotheses about the attributes that can be linked to race and sex. Women have smaller skulls than men, which means smaller brains, and so it was assumed women had smaller intellects. Alice Lee decided this was her field of study, and investigated the link between intelligence and brain size.

Her results surprised her fellow scientists. She found no correlation between brain size and intelligence. And that was the problem that the scientific establishment had with her argument: that the intellectual difference between man and woman was not directly attributable to skull size and shape. And realms of papers had been written about the ‘superiority’ of the masculine intellect based on brain size, misusing Darwin’s writings to support this androcentric world view. Many people – some of them supporters of eugenics and Francis Galton – had used the ‘men are smarter’ argument to support various claims and so were quite horrified at being proven so wrong. Her findings also refuted the racists belief that other races had smaller brains and therefore smaller intellects.

Lee used statistical rigour to support her findings, making it impossible to discredit her findings. Instead, she was attacked by her university examiners, who accused her of unoriginality, unskilled presentation of results, and this was when she was accused of taking credit for unnamed male colleagues’ work. The Royal Society refused to publish her paper, and without their support her paper was considered unpublishable. She persevered. Her facts were irrefutable, and with time came widespread acceptance of her findings.

Craniology was not a pseudoscience like phrenology, and so the truth did win out in the end, no matter how unpalatable that truth was for many scientists and the misogynistic and racist academia. And yet, even though Alice Lee was in fact the first female to graduate from London University, you don’t see her mentioned very much. She has a Wikipedia page, but it doesn’t mention the controversy her work created. However, I’m doing my part to make sure the world knows about her courage and commitment to science.

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3 Comments

Filed under Historical Personage, Steampunk Feminist, Women in Science

3 responses to “Alice Lee and discrediting the andocentric assumptions of craniology : Victorian Woman of Science

  1. I found this post doubly interesting, first because last week a friend went to a lecture about black women in history and as she told me about it I realized that there are few women of any kind mentioned in history, especially in scientific areas. Second, I just read a short story today (Portrait of a Lady in a Monocole) about a women whose invention was stolen by her fiancé and the scientific club refused to believe her because women were just not that intelligent. Then I read about Ms. Lee and hats off to her for sticking to her guns and showing just how intelligent she actually was. Thanks for sharing.

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