Sexism in Science Naming of Stuff? Bunsen, Petri, Southern, & More

In science we often use equipment, methods, or units that are named after accomplished scientists of the past without even thinking about it.

Originally, this piece was going to be dedicated to those pioneering scientists, but then I realized they are essentially all men with disturbingly few possible exceptions. Is there rampant sexism in science naming at work here? Let’s discuss some of these names and people.

Bunsen BurnerThe Bunsen Burner

Call me crazy, but I love the blue flame of a Bunsen burner. Where did this ubiquitous and indispensable lab tool get its name? It never occurred to me to ask until recently. The Bunsen Burner was named after German scientist Robert Bunsen, who invented it.

The Petri Dish

We use Petri dishes all the time and adaptations of Petri dishes made of plastic. Where did it get its name? It turns out it was named for Julius (Richard) Petri, its inventor. Richard Petri was a German microbiologist who produced the glass dish, a key feature as it could be sterilized.

petri dishThe Southern Blot

Many of us scientists use a technique called Southern Blotting to measure DNA, although it is not as popular these days. Most of us started out doing this without realizing that a Southern Blot is not named after a direction but rather a person. This method of DNA evaluation was named after Edwin Southern.

Pasteurization

All those dairy products so many of us love, but tow which some are intolerant due to a deficiency in lactase are safe today and have been for a long time due to a process called Pasteurization. This was named after Louis Pasteur.

The Curie and other Scientific units, elements

We measure radiation using different units and one helpful unit is the Curie. Now there is of course a famous female scientific genius after whom the radiation unit “Curie” could have been named. This was the genius Marie Curie. However, there is some debate as to whether this scientific unit was named instead by the powers that be at the time after just her equally famous husband, Pierre Curie, after Marie, or both of them. I hope it included her.

For the element Curium, it was named after both Marie and Pierre Curie, so that’s a positive. Speaking of elements, we have an unambiguous naming after another great woman scientist there for the element Meitnerium, named after the great Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner.

There are dozens of other scientific units named after people (for instance, see this list on Wikipedia) and as best as I can tell only one other one is named after a woman scientist, the amazing theoretical physicist, Maria Goeppert-Mayer.

Scientific phenomena named after people have very few women being honored as well.

Update above, over on Twitter Jason Sheltzer made a really good point that one of the most famous naming of something after a woman in science was HeLa cells and that was based on unethical appropriation of her cells.

Overall, is there as big a degree of sexism in honorary scientific naming as it seems? Am I missing any other scientific ‘namings’ that included women scientists? If you know of some, please let me know and I will update this to include them.

11 thoughts on “Sexism in Science Naming of Stuff? Bunsen, Petri, Southern, & More


  1. If I remember correctly, Ed Southern developed a method for detecting DNA fragments transferred from gels after electrophoresis. The Northern procedure, for detecting RNA from gels is a play on words off of Ed’s name. Likewise the Western, for detecting proteins after gel electrophoresis.

  2. Pingback: CRISPR/Cas9, or rather the « Charpentier-Doudna method », or ChaDoMe, or CDM? – Balades biologiques


  3. Excuse me, but how on earth is naming something after the individual who discovered it sexist? Taking one of your examples, the human who invented the Bunsen burner had their invention named after themselves. Why? BECAUSE THEY INVENTED IT. Being male or female has absolutely nothing to do with it! If something gets invented or discovered by a human, (be it male or female) it is going to be named after them. If a woman didn’t invent or discover something, then why would it be named after her?

    What a completely pointless topic for you to write about.


  4. They invented something and named it after the inventor?? How crazy is that? They should have named after their wife to ensure gender equality.
    Also, have you noticed that the Nobel prizes are also mostly given to men? So sexist.
    I guess the fact that until recently the vast majority of scientists were men has nothing to do with it.

    This must be one of the most pointless post I have ever read on this blog, but I guess looking for sexism everywhere is the new trend in science.


  5. Hi Paul-
    You must have started this topic as bait to get me to weigh in. The tradition of naming objects or assays after their inventors is long over…yes, there are “Yamanaka factors”, but it’s not an official designation. If you want to name something after me, let me know, but I like “PluriTest” better than something named after me…and it’s a registered trademark.

    Jeanne


    • Here’s the Turing Test definition:

      The Turing test is a test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human.

      So the Loring Test maybe…

      The Loring test is a test, developed by Jeanne Loring, of a cell’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human embryonic stem cell.

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