Lack of names of women in microbiology

The bacterium Spirochaeta zuelzerae is named after microbiologist Margaret Zuelz
The bacterium Spirochaeta zuelzerae is named after microbiologist Margaret Zuelzer (on the photo). / Source: Wikimedia
Mètode magazine publishes a report on the research developed at the Universitat de València on the scientific names dedicated to female researchers.

Cytophaga johnsonae. This is the name of the bacterium named after Delia E. Johnson, American microbiologist and the first woman in the history of microbiology to name an organism, one hundred and twenty-five years after a man did so.

In biology, one way to recognise the most prominent figures of its field is to honour them with an eponymous, this is, a term that comes from the name of a person. There are many examples, also in fields such as medicine or chemistry: the chemical element curium, named after Pierre and Marie Curie; Alzheimer’s disease, after the doctor who identified it; neperian logarithms, after John Neper; or the aforementioned Cytophaga johnsonae. But, which of these eponymous in science are dedicated to women? Recent research into the scientific names of bacteria and archaea has highlighted the remarkable gender gap that still exists in the nomenclature of prokaryotes in microbiology.

The research was carried out by scientists from the Department of Microbiology and Ecology of the Universitat de València, the Institute of Agrochemistry and Food Technology (IATA, CSIC), and the Leibniz Institute in Germany. After analysing thousands of prokaryotic eponyms, they found that only 14.8 % of them are named after women, which makes it clear that the situation has not improved since C. johnsonae was named in 1947, despite the fact that the number of women in the field of microbiology has progressively increased and that other microbiologists have joined the list: Margaret Zuelzer (Spirochaeta zuelzerae), Genevieve Roth (Rothia), Michaela Elisabeth Sharpe (Lactobacillus sharpeae) o Junqin Li (Nocardioides lijunqiniae), among many others.

According to David Arahal and Lola Giner, researchers at the Universitat de València and co-authors of the study, the main cause of this gap can be found in the fact that almost all disciplines have been dominated by men. In addition, according to the researchers, in microbiology there is a lot of reference to historical figures, so clearly there is already an unequal starting point. In any case, according to David Arahal, "a lot of hidden women who played a very important role are currently being brought to light, such as Fanny Gese or Katherine Evans".

Eponyms on a tightrope

In recent years, there has been a debate about the appropriateness of certain eponyms, such as the Anophthalmus hitleri beetle, which is named after Adolf Hitler. Also, in certain sectors of botany or zoology there have been debates about changing some eponyms belonging to historical figures that are questionable today, such as those related to the colonial past. However, according to Arahal, microbiology does not have this issue. "We are talking about an historical period in which microbiology was barely coining names", explains the researcher, "and when we have reviewed all the eponyms we have not found a single case that could give rise to this type of controversy".

Extrapolating this debate to the gender gap in prokaryotic nomenclatures, neither David Arahal nor Lola Giner consider that a change of name or the elimination of eponyms is the solution, as this would create confusion in botanical and zoological nomenclature. For the researchers, the solution would be to give more visibility to this problem, as well as to the studies that are being carried out, so that new generations of scientists do not repeat the same mistakes, and so that positive figures in science are promoted.

According to Lola Giner, "the fact that this article has been published has already had a great impact". Microbiologists believe that being aware of this situation is a good way to raise awareness and choose female referents if one has the opportunity to name a bacterium or an archaea. David Arahal adds that it is also important for academic institutions such as the university to get involved and ease the inclusion of figures from the field of sociology and other similar fields to analyse the causes of this situation, in which geographical areas it is most prevalent, whether this depends on how egalitarian societies are, etc. So far, both Arahal and Giner hope to keep researching on this topic and be able to do more dissemination in educational centres so that they can reach new generations and avoid this gender gap to grow bigger.

This report was originally published Mètode magazine of the Universitat de València.