If you want an example of the true grittiness and resourcefulness of the American spirit, you can’t go past Nettie Stevens. She is also a good example of how the male-dominated Victorian-era academic society could cruelly ignore a fine mind and hard work simply because it was housed in a woman’s body. Nettie Stevens was born in 1861 to working class parents. She was a gifted child, with a passion for science and mathematics. She took the one career route that would allow her some access to these fields; she trained as a teacher and then spent ten years saving her salary to fund her further education.
In 1896, Stevens attended Leland Stanford University. She graduated with a Bachelor degree in 1899, and a master’s degree in biology in 1900. After Stanford, Stevens went to Bryn Mawr College in Philadelphia, for more graduate work, and completed her Ph.D in 1903 (when she would have been 42). She was then awarded an assistantship by the Carnegie Institute, after glowing recommendations from Thomas Hunt Morgan, Edmund Wilson and M. Carey Thomas, the president of Bryn Mawr. In 1905, she discovered that in some species chromosomes are different among the sexes, by observations of meal worm chromosomes. One of the previous heads of the biology department, Edmund Beecher Wilson, had only performed tests on the testis, because the eggs were too fatty for the old staining procedures. She went on to identify the Y chromosome.
If you remember your high school science textbooks, males have a large X chromosome and much smaller Y chromosome, and females have two large X chromosomes. Nettie Stevens discovered this and proposed the classifications of X & Y … and Edmund Beecher Wilson included her findings when he rewrote and reissued his paper. Stevens did most of her work as an independent investigator, with Thomas Hunt Morgan as her department supervisor. Morgan went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1933 for ‘his’ discoveries of the major roles of chromosomes in the mechanisms of heredity. Sadly, Nettie Stevens had died of breast cancer in 1912, and was ineligible to share the prize.
Now, it might be obvious that Nettie was a tough woman battling in a male-dominated academic arena, but she didn’t let that stop her from making an important contribution to science. She has qualities that I hope to encapsulate for my protagonist in my Steampunk narrative, even though my Professor Alice isn’t American. Determination. Intellectual curiosity. A certain fearlessness in attitude, in not needing the approval of society to go on to achieve her goals. Nettie Stevens had all that and so much more.