Categories: Sanger Life29 June 20227.8 min read

LGBTQ+ scientists who shaped history

According to Pride in STEM, only 60 per cent of LGBTQ+ people who work in STEM are out to their colleagues, and 50 per cent of transgender and gender non-conforming people have been harassed in their own departments.

Science thrives on diversity. Diversity of opinions, upbringing, experiences, and lifestyles, brings about innovation. It is imperative that everyone feels safe and comfortable to be their true selves at work, as that is how the best work is achieved.

Here, we celebrate LGBTQ+ researchers from history, some famous and some less well recognised, but all with outstanding contributions to science.

Alan Turing

One of the most notable LGBTQ+ scientists from history is Alan Turing. He was a mathematician and computer scientist, famed for cracking intercepted ‘Enigma’ coded messages in World War II.

The Enigma Machine was used by German armed forces to send secure messages regarding their strategies and movements. Turing, along with his team at Bletchley Park, cracked these codes, and is estimated to have shortened the war by two years and saved 14 million lives.

It is a rare experience to meet an authentic genius. Those of us privileged to inhabit the world of scholarship are familiar with the intellectual stimulation furnished by talented colleagues. We can admire the ideas they share with us and are usually able to understand their source; we may even often believe that we ourselves could have created such concepts and originated such thoughts. However, the experience of sharing the intellectual life of a genius is entirely different; one realizes that one is in the presence of an intelligence, a sensibility of such profundity and originality that one is filled with wonder and excitement. Alan Turing was such a genius, and those, like myself, who had the astonishing and unexpected opportunity, created by the strange exigencies of the Second World War, to be able to count Turing as colleague and friend will never forget that experience, nor can we ever lose its immense benefit to us.”

Extract from Peter J. Hilton’s Reminiscences of Bletchley Park, 1942-1945, A Century of Mathematics in America, Part I, American Mathematical Society, 1992

In 1952, Turing was arrested for his homosexuality, then a criminal offence in the United Kingdom, and charged with ‘gross indecency’. Rather than go to prison, he accepted a sentence of chemical castration, so that he could continue his work. He was found dead in 1954, of suspected suicide by cyanide poisoning. His body was found next to a half-eaten apple, and it was speculated this was how he ingested the poison, re-enacting a scene from his favourite fairytale, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

He was given a posthumous royal pardon in 2013, and inspired the 2016 ‘Turing Law’, in which pardons were given to many living and dead men who had been convicted over consensual same-sex relationships. He now appears on the Bank of England £50 note, and is the subject of the Academy Award-winning film, The Imitation Game.

Passport photo of Alan Turing at age 16.

Dr Sara Josephine Baker. Image Credit: U.S. National Library of Medicine.

Sara Josephine Baker

Sara Josephine Baker was a doctor from New York, USA, born in 1873. She went into medicine feeling pressure to financially support her family, after her father and brother died of typhoid.

She graduated second in her class at the New York Infirmary Medical College, and began practising medicine in New York, and soon had a focus on lowering infant mortality. She started to train mothers on how to care for their babies, keeping them clean, warm and well fed. She also invented an infant formula made from water, calcium carbonate, lactose, and cow’s milk, enabling mothers to go to work.

In 1917, she was the first woman to receive a doctorate in public health. She is famous for having helped catch Mary ‘Typhoid Mary’ Mallon, who is known to have infected more than 50 people with typhoid.

“The way to keep people from dying from disease, it struck me suddenly, was to keep them from falling ill. Healthy people don’t die. It sounds like a completely witless remark, but at that time it was a startling idea. Preventative medicine had hardly been born yet and had no promotion in public health work.”

Fighting for Life, Sara Josephine Baker, first published by Macmillan Company 1939

Baker spent her later life in the company of Ida Alexa Ross Wylie, a self-identified ‘woman-oriented-woman’.

Florence Nightingale

Nightingale trained nurses during the Crimean War, and became iconic for making rounds of wounded soldiers at night, earning the moniker ‘The Lady with the Lamp’.

She came from a wealthy family who were able to support her through her studies as a nurse, and was sent to the Ottoman Empire in 1854 to tend to wounded soldiers. She was appalled by the poor conditions, and is said to have reduced the death rate from 42 per cent to two per cent, either by improving hygiene standards herself, or by calling on the Sanitary Commission. Joan Quixley from the Nightingale School of Nursing called her the ‘founder of modern nursing’.

She has a nursing school named after her at King’s College London, plus other honours in her name, such as the Florence Nightingale Medal, and the Nightingale Pledge (a version of the Hippocratic Oath for nurses). She has many representations in film, theatre, and was formerly on the £10 Bank of England bank note, and prior to 2002 was the only woman to appear on British currency other than monarchs.

She wrote: ‘I have lived and slept in the same beds with English Countesses and Prussian farm women. No woman has excited passions among women more than I have’, suggesting that she may have been a lesbian. There are also records of her not feeling much or any sexual attraction, suggesting that she may have been asexual. It would seem that she was, above all, dedicated to her work.

These are just a handful of examples of some of the incredible LGBTQ+ scientists from history who have shaped their fields, and in several cases, measurably saved thousands of lives.

The Lady with the Lamp. Popular lithograph reproduction of a painting of Nightingale by Henrietta Rae, 1891. Image credit: Wellcome Images. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

Credit: Myelin Repair Foundation, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Barres

Ben Barres was a neurobiologist, best known for his discovery that glial cells release factors that help make synaptic connections between nerve cells.

He was assigned female at birth, but ‘internally [he] felt very strongly that [he] was a boy’. He was an exceptional student, but suffered in the face of sexism. When he once solved a difficult problem, it was assumed that a boyfriend had solved it for him, having been incapable of doing it as a woman. He found that he was treated with much more respect after transitioning, and became a lifelong advocate for gender equality.

“I lived life on my terms: I wanted to switch genders, and I did. I wanted to be a scientist, and I was. I wanted to study glia, and I did that too. I stood up for what I believed in and I like to think I made an impact, or at least opened the door for the impact to occur. I have zero regrets and I’m ready to die. I’ve truly had a great life.”

Extract from The Autobiography of a Transgender Scientist, Ben Barres, MIT Press 2018

He earned degrees from Massachusetts Insitute of Technology, Dartmouth, and Harvard, and was the first openly transgender member elected to the American National Academy of Sciences, among numerous other honours. He died in 2017 from pancreatic cancer.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Much has been written about the personal life and sexuality of Leonardo da Vinci, (indeed, his personal life has a Wikipedia page of its own) but the common consensus among scholars is that he was gay, with even Sigmund Freud weighing in on the matter. Art critic, Jonathan Jones wrote about how he was ‘almost certainly gay, but [his] most powerful portraits were of women’.

He was an Italian painter, engineer, sculptor, and architect, to name just a few. He painted the Mona Lisa, often regarded as the world’s most famous painting, as well as the Last Supper and Vitruvian Man.

He was a student of anatomy, made plans for flying machines, was the first to identify atherosclerosis, and was, and still is, widely regarded as a genius.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, engraved on a copperplate by Nicolas de Larmessin and printed in a book "Académie des Sciences et des Arts" written by Isaac Bullart and published in Amsterdam by Elzevier in 1682.

These are just a handful of examples of some of the incredible LGBTQ+ scientists from history who have shaped their fields, and in several cases, measurably saved thousands of lives.

If you’re a member of the LGBTQ+ community and looking for some support, please reach out to one of these groups: