Go back to article: Wired-up in white organdie: framing women’s scientific labour at the Burden Neurological Institute

Introduction: framing women in neuroscientific research

In the celebratory narratives of twentieth-century neuroscience, the Burden Neurological Institute (BNI) occupies a prominent position. Founded in Bristol in 1939 as an independent research unit, the BNI rapidly established itself as a world-leading centre of expertise in the anatomy, functions, and disorders of the human brain. Within its first two years, the Institute secured its radical credentials by performing Britain’s first trials of electro-convulsive therapy (ECT) and prefrontal leucotomy (lobotomy), before making great leaps forward in fields as diverse as electroencephalography (the recording of the electrical activity of the brain, also known as EEG) and robotic engineering.[1] For many, the BNI’s revolutionary outlook was embodied in its most well-known figure, the neurophysiologist William Grey Walter (1910–1977). Over the years, Walter has been variably portrayed as a genius engineer who recognised the untapped potential of the human brainwave (Bladin, 2006), an amateur roboticist who inaugurated a new age of artificial intelligence research from the confines of his garden shed (Holland, 2003), a maverick scientist who dismayed the academic establishment with his repeated refusals to conform (Hayward, 2001, p 616), and a fair-haired ‘Adonis’ with ‘an eye for the ladies’ (Cooper and Bird, 1989, pp 49–51).

Yet the elision of the BNI’s story with the biography of its most prominent ‘lone male genius’ risks overlooking an intriguing and largely understudied aspect of the Institute’s history: its prominent employment of women as researchers, technicians and laboratory assistants. Between 1950 and 1954, a formative period in the BNI’s burgeoning research programme, 42 per cent of the Institute’s recorded positions were held by women.[2] This figure is particularly striking considering that women constituted 31 per cent of the national workforce during this period and held just 22 per cent of positions within comparable engineering fields (Holloway, 2005, pp 191–197). Furthermore, while many of their counterparts in other scientific workplaces found themselves largely restricted to clerical and administrative duties (Horrocks, 2000, pp 355–361), female staff at the BNI played crucial roles in shaping the Institute’s research agenda. Prominent individuals included psychiatrist Effie Lilian Hutton (1904–1956), the BNI’s first Clinical Director who organised many of its early psychosurgical breakthroughs (Hutton, Fleming and Fox, 1941), radiologist Vivian Joan Aldridge (née Dovey, later Walter, 1915–1980), who collaborated on a number of the BNI’s foundational EEG projects, including the use of the technique to detect subcortical tumours (Walter and Dovey, 1946), and Janet Shipton (née Attlee, 1923–), who co-authored publications on brainwave frequencies and their relation to variations in human personality (Cooper et al, 1957).[3]

Despite these crucial contributions, the voices of female staff are practically absent from the BNI’s historical and archival legacy. This much is evident in the BNI Papers, which, since their donation to the Science Museum, London in 2000, have provided the foundation for the vast majority of historical studies of the Institute and its achievements. Out of the nearly three hundred items of written material that constitute the collection’s main papers, a mere six per cent are derived from female authors. Examining the extensive collection of correspondence, 88 per cent of letters exclusively record communication between men, with just 12 per cent documenting conversations between participants of different genders. The papers do not contain a single instance of communication between two female employees.[4] It is therefore unsurprising that the BNI emerges in most histories as a site of exclusively male scientific enterprise. While these materials offer rich and detailed evidence of male collaborative relationships, right down to debates over what types of nuts and bolts should be used in prototype machines, they offer no such insight into the experiences of women working at the Institute.[5]

There is, however, one section of the BNI Papers in which women are not chronically underrepresented: its small collection of photographs and press cuttings. Here, women appear in 47 per cent of images; furthermore, in ‘portrait’ style photographs, featuring individual members of staff rather than mixed groups, women actually constitute the majority.[6] As such, the visual materials of the collection, while much fewer in number than their written equivalents, provide a representation of women that is at least quantitatively equivalent to their presence within the BNI’s laboratories. It might be tempting, therefore, to view photographic images of the BNI as a tool through which the masculine domination of the archival record can be subverted: a ‘window’ through which one might access a hidden history of women’s scientific achievements.

However, to embrace photographs in this way – as superior and unproblematic tools of historical empowerment – would be to overlook a critical tradition of scholarship established in the works of Susan Sontag (1977), John Berger (1980) and Allan Sekula (1981; 1982) among others. Collectively, these critiques rejected notions of the photograph as a direct, neutral and disinterested imprint of reality, and instead advocated for a more rigorous deconstruction of photographic images to reveal their hidden layers of political, social and cultural meaning (see also Flusser, 1983; Tagg, 1988). These approaches to photography have intersected powerfully with historical critiques of gender, with scholars such as Abigail Solomon-Godeau (1991), Carol J Williams (2003), and Laikwan Pang (2007) exploring the critical role of photographic images in the production and naturalisation of gender norms.

Over the past decade, historians of photography have sought to adapt and nuance these deconstructionist approaches, conceptualising photographs not just as politically-charged images but also as physical, material objects with distinctive histories of production, collection, and display (Mitman and Wilder, 2016; Klamm, 2016). This ‘material turn’ in histories of photography has further encouraged scholars to consider not just photographic content – that is, what a photograph depicts – but also, photographic agency: what a photograph ‘does’ in a particular socio-political environment. Within any given space, a photograph might foster a communal sense of identity and purpose (Pollen, 2016), open up spaces for political critique and dissent (Pasternak, 2010; 2013), or stir up visceral, affective and multisensory experiences in its viewers (Edwards, 2010).

These critical analyses of materiality and agency are particularly useful when considering the role of photographs in bolstering the authority of scientific research and its practitioners. Scholars have long recognised the privileged place occupied by photography among other visual tools of scientific proof – such as graphs, diagrams, and models – by virtue of its distinctive claim to truthfulness and universality (Burri and Dumit, 2007). This is particularly pronounced in the modern neurosciences, where ‘photographic’ images of the brain produced via techniques such as positron emission tomography (PET) and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) have played a vital role in establishing the discipline’s cultural authority over ephemeral domains such as consciousness, selfhood, and the emotions (Rose and Abi-Rached, 2013, pp 65–81). As such, photographs of research practices are not mere reflections of predetermined scientific authority, but rather produce and enact that authority through their creation, circulation and display.

Following these approaches, this article examines the ways in which photographic depictions of women working at the BNI have helped to ‘frame’ perceptions of their scientific labour, both at the time and in historical accounts since.[7] Such an analysis draws inspiration from a broader re-evaluation of women’s opportunities within the shifting landscapes of post-war employment, as advanced in the work of historians such as Clare Langhamer (2017), Helen McCarthy (2016) and Stephanie Spencer (2005). These investigations have revealed the ways in which women’s career choices continued to be shaped by pervasive cultural ideals of the feminine, the maternal and the domestic in the aftermath of the Second World War (see also Aiston, 2004; Thane, 2004; Todd, 2005). More specifically, this article looks towards recent investigations of women engaged in scientific and technological occupations during this period, a body of work which has self-consciously moved away from biographies of ‘exceptional’ female scientists in favour of examining the experiences of a much larger class of women upon whose shoulders the daily labour of scientific advancement so often rested (see Hicks, 2017).

The article proceeds by examining three different ‘frames’ through which the labour of women at the BNI was visually presented: firstly, an objectifying depiction of women as the subjects, rather than the practitioners, of neuroscientific research; secondly, the elision of women’s scientific, domestic and familial roles; and, finally, the visual equation of women’s labour with that of the machine. These frames were not arbitrarily imposed by visiting photographers, but rather emerged from complex negotiations between those involved in the photographic exchange, their surrounding institutions and patrons, and broader cultural patterns of gendered meaning (see Jordanova, 2000, p 23; Sidlauskas, 2013, p 36). By examining the photographs of the BNI Collection in this way, this article seeks to provide not merely a series of hostile deconstructions – in line with the ‘rigid negativity’ diagnosed by Susan Linfield (2010, pp 4–12) as the prevailing tone of postmodern critiques of photography – but rather a creative engagement with ongoing debates among historians and museum professionals about how best to represent the voices of female workers in narratives of scientific progress. Ultimately, this article suggests that historical analyses and museum exhibitions must do more than simply reassert the primacy of women’s labour in the face of its historical devaluation; by placing photographs in different kinds of material and intellectual settings, such practices can also highlight the subtle and varied processes through which this labour was devalued in the first place.

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181003/002