The British astrophysicist, who made one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th century but was overlooked by the Nobel Prize committee, has joined the male-dominated portrait collection of the Royal Society.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a 24-year-old graduate when in 1967 she discovered a new type of star later known as a pulsar. It was a sensational find, honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1974, not to her but to her male promoter.
Since then, she has been a pioneering advocate of women and marginalized in science, and was the first woman to become president of the Institute of Physics.
On Saturday, she became one of the few women scientists whose portrait on the walls of the Royal Society Carlton House Terrace in central London was honored, taking the place now occupied by the naturalist Joseph Banks.
“I’m sure it will upset some people,” she said, chuckling as the Ranger informed her of her position at the top of the great stairs. “I have to admit it’s really visible, I’m surprised by it.”
The Royal Society has about 200 portraits of scientists in its core collection, which began in the 17th century. Only a handful are women.
“They only admitted women 75 years ago, so maybe it’s not surprising that there aren’t many women represented,” said Bell Burnell. “But it needs to be fixed.
“I think they ordered about four or five portraits of their friends [in recent years]as long as they don’t stop there and think “well, we did it” and we have to wait another 75 years.
The portrait by Stephen Shankland shows Bell Burnell at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, in front of the 36-inch Grubb-Parsons reflecting telescope, the largest of its kind in the 1930s.
It was unveiled to mark the date 53 years ago when she discovered a new star type while still a student at Cambridge.
Bell Burnell was always happy that the Nobel Prize goes to a man. She said the Nobel committee rarely involved students in awards.
“Sometimes it does, so it’s not a complete taboo, but it’s not common. Inevitably, older men are much more visible than female students so you can understand what’s going on.
“I think my colleagues were a little more nervous than me … they called it the prize without belle.”
In 2018, she received a Breakthrough in Basic Physics Award of $ 3 million (£ 2.3 million) for her work on pulsars and a lifetime of inspirational leadership in the scientific community. The money was donated to the Institute of Physics for doctoral scholarships for people who are under-represented in physics.
She said Bell Burnell experienced sexism in her career. “It was very bad, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. It was very unusual for a woman to make a career back then. There was a time you went to the doctor with any kind of ailment, he would say, “Everything will be fine when you have a lovely baby.”
Until 1945, the Royal Society’s collection of works included only one woman – a bust of Scottish scientist Mary Somerville.
Keith Moore, head of art at the Royal Society, said: “We are so excited that the portrait of Dame Jocelyn will take its rightful place alongside the portraits of the greatest scientists of all time. He is a real role model that can be admired both personally and as a pigment. “