Relics of Rhoda Sale, a Near-Forgotten Female Physicist

In recent decades historians have made great strides in uncovering the hidden history of women in STEM, but many female scientists' stories remain obscure. Most of them were not Nobel Prize winners like Marie Curie, or famous authors such as Rachel Carson, but still talented and hard-working women whose efforts contributed to the progress of science at a time when their gender's participation was often undervalued or rejected outright. We recently acquired an evocative record of one such scientist, the physicist Rhoda Sale.

Sale (née Buchanan) rarely appears in the historical record, but I was able to determine that she graduated with an MA from the University of Edinburgh in 1918, became a staff member at the school, and was also elected to the Edinburgh Mathematical Society in the same year. At Edinburgh she studied radiation with Nobel Prize-winner Charles Glover Barkla, who made significant advancements in understanding x-ray scattering and the transmission of x-rays through matter. Barkla led an all-male research team up to the First World War, when many of his students were drafted. He was able to continue his work by "utilizing the services of the most able women graduates", and he had at least four other female researchers in his laboratory during the late teens and early 1920s (Rayner-Canham, A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity, p. 156-57). Together Barkla and Sale sought to clarify the relationship between wavelength and scattering for x-rays and also searched unsuccessfully for a new type of characteristic x radiation (Biographical Dictionary of Women in Science).

The volume depicted above is Sale's own first edition copy of Ernest Rutherford's important 1913 book on radioactivity, Radioactive Substances and Their Radiations. Rutherford was a pioneer of nuclear physics and his first book on the phenomena, Radio-Activity, was published in 1904. The intervening years saw such a dramatic increase of knowledge in the field that this volume, "an accurate and concise account of the whole subject as it stands to-day" is "an entirely new work" (introduction), retaining only a few pages from the earlier text. Most notably, it includes the first book-published description of the Geiger-Marsden (gold-foil) experiment, by which Rutherford conclusively proved that the structure of the atom was a tiny nucleus surrounded by large areas of empty space within the orbits of the electrons.

Rutherford's work would have been a key text for Sale and Barkla as they carried out their own research programme. Sale inscribed her name on the front free endpaper, and the light wear and discolouration affecting the binding is suggestive of its use as a reference work in the lab.

Loosely inserted is a rare offprint of Sale's most significant publication, "Notes on X-Ray Scattering and J Radiation", which appeared in the Philosophical Magazine in 1923 and was significant enough to be cited by Arthur Compton in another paper in the Philosophical Transactions in November that year. In the offprint Sale has crossed out "Miss Rhoda Sale" and replaced it with "Mrs Sale". Despite her scientific career it may have important to Sale to be recognised as a married woman at a time when marriage was a key social goal for women - or perhaps she thought that "Mrs.", with its connotations of adulthood and responsibility, gave her name a weight and authority that the more youthful "Miss" did not.

There are also wonderful laboratory notes - two halves of a mimeographed leaf giving methods for detecting metallic radicals. Sale has made numerous notes in ink on these pages based on her practical experience in the laboratory, and they are also stained and burned at the edges, very much appearing to have been consulted and annotated in the course of experimentation.

This is a wonderfully evocative record of a near-forgotten female scientist, one who never became a superstar but instead did the important, but under-recognised, day-to-day work that carries science forward. Rhoda Sale and other women like her are significant because they give the lie to the notion that science is a man's game save for a select few unusually gifted women. After all, most male scientists are not Nobel Prize winners - they work hard in obscurity, making incremental advancements rather than groundbreaking discoveries. Rather than seeing their female counterparts as signs that women are not suited to the field, we should celebrate them as an integral part of the history of science.

Resources for women in STEM:

Laura Massey
Laura Massey


Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.

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