Ich bin ein Gastbloggerin: A special post for International Women’s Day.

Mar 08 2011 Published by under Uncategorized

My fellow guest blogger Penny Richards wrote in her post on Joyce Kaufman:


Although Johns Hopkins didn’t welcome women students in those days


To celebrate International Women’s Day I thought I would draw the readers’ attention to another earlier women scientist who suffered under the negative attitude to women of Johns Hopkins University. As regular readers of my scribblings should already know I paid my dues as a historian of science working in a research project on the history of formal logic in which my special area of research was the English algebra of logic in the 19th century. Although centred on the work of George Boole and his successors such as William Stanley Jevons my remit also included the American school of logical algebra founded and led by Charles S. Peirce. One of Peirce’s group of logical researchers at Johns Hopkins University was Christine Ladd-Franklin the subject of this post.


Born Christine ‘Kitty’ Ladd in Windsor Connecticut on 1st December 1847 she was fortunate in having open minded progressive parents who enabled her to study at Vassar College, one of the first American women’s university, beginning in 1866 only its second year of operation. Here she came under the influence of the first professional female American astronomer Maria Mitchell who stimulated he interest in science. Unable, as a woman, to gain access to laboratories or observatories Ladd opted for a career in mathematics. Graduating in 1869 A.B. she became a schoolteacher for the next nine years, an occupation that she loathed. During this time she established a minor reputation publishing mathematical papers in the English Educational Times and the American Analyst


In 1878 she applied to do graduate studies in mathematics at the recently opened Johns Hopkins University, her application being submitted under the name C. Ladd. Impressed by her abilities the university offered he a place only to withdraw their offer on discovering that C. Ladd was a woman, enter J. J. Sylvester. Sylvester one of the worlds leading mathematicians was the newly appointed professor of mathematics and far and away the most prominent member of faculty of the new university. Sylvester knew of Ladd’s publications and insisted that the university grant her a place. He was possibly motivated by the fact that as a Jew he had been discriminated against in his own time as a student being denied the right to graduate at Cambridge because he was not an Anglican. At first Ladd was only allowed to study mathematics but after one year she was granted permission to attend the other courses at the university. Now she became acquainted with Charles Peirce and became a member of his logic research team writing under his supervision her doctoral thesis The Algebra of Logic. Although she had fulfilled the requirements to obtain a doctorate the university refused to grant her degree because she was a woman. Her thesis was published as part of Peirce’s Studies in Logic by Members of the Johns Hopkins University a book that is a milestone in the history of formal logic. During her time at Johns Hopkins Ladd also published several mathematics papers in leading journals.


In 1882 Ladd married the Hungarian mathematics professor Fabian Franklin who would continue to support her scientific activities throughout their marriage. Unable to obtain work as a female mathematician Ladd-Franklin travelled to Germany with her husband where he had a sabbatical. It is not really known how Ladd-Franklin became interested in vision and in particular colour vision but this was to become her main area of research. Whilst in Germany she worked together with both Arthur König and Hermann von Helmholtz two of the leading expert in the field of physiological optics. Dissatisfied with the theories of both of her mentors Ladd-Franklin developed and published her own ideas establishing herself as an authority in the field. Nowadays she is better known for her work on colour vision than for her mathematics or logic.


Although now recognised as an expert she was, as a woman, still unable to obtain an academic position. In 1904 she was appointed lecturer in psychology and logic at Johns Hopkins but only on a yearly basis with her appointment requiring renewal every year. Finally in 1926 when she 79 years old Johns Hopkins granted her the doctorate that she had earned more than 40 years earlier. Vassar also awarded her an honorary Lt. D. In 1929, the year before she died, she published a collection of her papers on vision Colour and Colour Theories.


Christine Ladd-Franklin was a strong woman who earned a place in the history of science whilst having to fight against the prejudices and ignorance of the males of the species.




3 responses so far

  • penny says:

    Here's Christine Ladd Franklin in the Smithsonian's Women in Science photo collection on Flickr Commons:

  • C. Ladd-Franklin is one of my favorite figures in the history of psychology. One of the things I've always loved about her work was that she wasn't afraid to cite-as evidence--her own experience with children, including her daughter (this was, after all, 50 years before Piaget). For example, check out 'A Logic Poem' (1926) Science (on jstor) or her preface (if memory serves) to Helmholtz's Physiological Optics. Even today, I think many of us academics--both men and women--might have to think twice about the consequences to our 'serious research' reputation by admitting that we are, in fact, loving parents.
    I often think of her as a kind of pioneer in the work-life balance we all have to try to strike, one of the earliest working academic moms.