A group of women huddled around scientific equipment

Want to help forgotten women scientists get their due? PSU has a course for that! 

This spring term, students who enroll in Catherine McNeur’s “Public History Lab: Women Scientists & Wikipedia” course will have the opportunity to contribute to the history of science in a very public way by writing Wikipedia articles for forgotten women scientists.  

Portland State’s Summer Allen spoke with McNeur about the course and her new book, Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science.

Summer Allen: You will be teaching “Public History Lab: Women Scientists & Wikipedia” for the second time this spring. Tell me about the course. 

Catherine McNeur: We partner with WikiEDU, which is an independent nonprofit that serves as a bridge between academia and Wikipedia. Students get trained in all the back-end work that’s necessary to create and edit articles. We spend a lot of time discussing the quality control necessary to choose what kind of sources we use to write biographies of women scientists who have been overlooked over time—the hidden figures of the long American history of science.

Catherine McNeur (photo credit: Andrea Lonas)

Allen: How did you come up with this course?

McNeur: The course was born from my own research experience. I’ve just finished writing a book called Mischievous Creatures, which is coming out this fall. It’s about two scientists in mid-nineteenth century Philadelphia who are completely unknown: Margaretta Hare Morris, an entomologist, and her sister Elizabeth Morris, a botanist. My book is not only about their lives and work, but also about how they’ve been erased from histories of science in the centuries since their deaths.

I fell upon the Morris sisters accidentally when I was researching an entirely different topic at the New-York Historical Society. When I came across Elizabeth Morris’s name, I googled her and found there was no Wikipedia page. There was a cursory page for Margaretta, which gave me a glimpse into the lives of the remarkable sisters, but I was surprised to learn that so little had been written about them and their work. I have spent the last six years unearthing their work and the story of their lives as I’ve written this book. 

Ever since that first day in the archive, though, I’ve been thinking: How can we correct for similar historical erasures through Wikipedia? The Morris sisters are far from the only marginalized scientists who haven’t made it into narratives about the history of science. This felt like a great opportunity to create a course where students could make a real difference.

Allen: What was the reaction from students when you first taught the course?

McNeur: Many students enter the course wary of Wikipedia. They’ve gone through most of their education having teachers and professors tell them to not trust what they find there.  But they come out of the course with a lot more respect for the quality control that the editorial community brings and the standards that exist around what kinds of sources are worth citing and what kind of tone you are supposed to take. They become ideal Wikipedia contributors, and end up surprised by the amount of respect they’ve gained for the crowd-sourced encyclopedia by the end of the term.

The Wikipedia entry for naturalist and paleontologist Annie Montague Alexander was edited by PSU student Samantha Bowen for the 2021 course (photo believed to have been taken by Edna Wemple in 1905)

Allen: What other skills will students learn in this course?

McNeur: We spend a lot of time discussing credible and reliable secondary sources as students develop their subject’s biographies, and it is particularly difficult to find these kinds of sources when your subject has been all but erased from the historical narrative. We spend a lot of time discussing the benefits of finding peer-reviewed articles and books, rather than, say, less trust-worthy sources like blog entries or self-published materials.

Writing for an encyclopedia is a totally different genre than writing for a typical history course where you’re supposed to develop an argument and a thesis and be building your evidence towards this specific argument. For an encyclopedia like Wikipedia, students need to learn to use a neutral tone, which can be difficult. Learning these different genres, though, is great training for any kind of writing students might do after graduation.

The fact that these pages become public at the end of the term can be terrifying for students used to having a limited audience for their research papers, but it can also feel invigorating to realize your work is making a big difference in how someone is remembered.

Allen: How have students reacted to the process of uncovering these forgotten scientists?

McNeur: Some students get really angry when they realize that the scientist they’re writing about has been more or less erased. We often work with stub articles, essentially very cursory articles where there’s room to expand. In a previous iteration of the course, one student found that the scientist’s page was primarily about her husband’s work, rather than her own, for instance. It can feel really empowering in these cases to reorganize and recenter the scientist’s own work, giving them their due. The fact that these pages become public at the end of the term can be terrifying for students used to having a limited audience for their research papers, but it can also feel invigorating to realize your work is making a big difference in how someone is remembered. 

Book cover for Mischievous Creatures

Allen: What was researching your book like?

McNeur: It is not always easy to research your subjects when they’ve been all but erased. That said, I found they were often hidden in plain sight. For instance, I found a lot of Margaretta and Elizabeth Morris’s writings tucked in the papers of male scientists. 

The botanist Elizabeth Morris was also a science writer in magazines, but she preferred to write with pseudonyms, which made it even harder to track down her work. Coming across a list of her pseudonyms, and later an album she kept with all her drafts, made it possible for me to discover her work. In many ways, she preferred anonymity because of the intense critiques lobbed at women in science and she wasn’t alone. That, of course, has made it harder to find these scientists.

Both Margaretta and Elizabeth Morris lived very inspiring lives, driven by their passion to discover more about the world around them. They faced a lot of adversity, but they never lost their hunger to understand more about the environment and how it functioned. I’m glad that they will finally have their story told (and finally get more robust Wikipedia pages, too)!

Mischievous Creatures: The Forgotten Sisters Who Transformed Early American Science comes out October 31st and is available to preorder now

Catherine McNeur’s “Public History Lab: Women Scientists & Wikipedia” HST 495 | CRN 61496 will be taught this spring term. Learn about the stories students in the last class unearthed.

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