Due to homophobia and heteronormativity, many LGBTQ scientists are either completely removed from history or have their sexualities hidden from the world. This June, we’re here to celebrate these brilliant minds, and to ensure that they are given the recognition they deserve. Here are some of the most notably famous LGBTQ+ scientists of our time:
Sara Josephine Baker
Sara Josephine Baker (1873 – 1945) was an openly gay American physician known for her contributions to public health. She dressed in masculine suits and often joked that her colleagues would forget that she was a woman. She spent a great part of her later life with her partner, Ida A. R. Wylie.
Baker was renowned for her work in the public health sector, particularly her work fighting urban poverty and the ill-effects poverty had on the health of young children. Baker and her team of nurses would train mothers on how to care for their new-borns (around 1,500 babies died every week in Hell’s Kitchen). She set up milk stations to provide mothers with clean milk (commercial milk was often contaminated), as well as inventing her own formula. Baker also treated babies effected with gonorrhoea at birth – her dosage control and hygiene practices brought down the blindness rates from 300 a year to just 3 a year.
She was known for her work in the case of tracking down ‘Typhoid Mary’ (an asymptomatic typhoid carrier Mary Mallon who infected between 51-122 people). Baker was asked by the New York University Medical School to lecture on children’s health. Baker agreed on the condition that she also be allowed to enrol in the university: she was initially turned down, but eventually accepted after the school failed to find a male lecturer to match her level of knowledge. Baker went on to become the first woman to represent the US in the League of Nations as a member of the Health Committee in 1922-24.
Ben Barres (1954 – 2017) was a transgender neurobiologist at Stanford University. Following his transition in 1997, Barres was the first transgender scientist in the National Academy of Sciences in 2013. Barres conducted a significant amount of research and was one of the leading minds in neurobiology. Some of his notable achievements include being appointed as the Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford in 2008. Barres also received a number of significant awards during his life, including the Life Sciences Research Fellowship, the Klingenstein Fellowship Award, a McKnight Investigator Award, and a Searle Scholar Award.
Barres published on the sexism he experienced in the sciences during his time as a woman. Before his transition, Barres (at this time presenting female) was denied and turned away from science and mathematics courses. During his time at MIT he solved a difficult math problem that couldn’t be solved by the male students, and his professor accused that it was solved for him by a boyfriend.
Despite the struggles he faced, Barres went on to become one of the leading neurobiologists in his field, and will be remembered in history as one of the most famous LGBTQ+ scientists of his time.
Ruth Gates (1962 – 2018) was the Director of the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology. She was particularly passionate about coral; she even established the Gates Coral Lab at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, where her team still works to attempt to stabilize and restore coral reefs in the face of climate change.
Gates was a rather popular public figure in her field and known to engage audiences with her passionate public speaking during talks about marine science. She was invited to speak at the Aspen Ideas Festival, and even since her death, the Gates Coral Lab is still actively involved in a wide range of public engagement and outreach.
Her work at the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology was featured in the Netflix documentary ‘Chasing Coral’. In the documentary Gates was able to express her love for coral, and share her passion with millions around the world. Gate achieved a lot during her life, including being the first woman to be the President of the International Society for Reed Studies.
Gates was a lesbian, and was married to her partner Robin Burton-Gates. Ruth Gates passed away suddenly in October 2018 due to a complication during surgery, but her legacy lives on at the Gates Coral Lab, and she continues to be one of the most famous LGBTQ+ scientists of our time.
Freida Fraser (1899 – 1994) was a Canadian physician, scientist, and academic who worked in the field of infectious diseases, specialising in research on scarlet fever and tuberculosis. One of Frasers most significant career findings include typing the streptococci of scarlet fever, an important breakthrough for tracking the epidemiology of the disease.
In 1928 she lectured in the department of hygiene at the University of Toronto on preventative medicine. She worked her way up from teaching assistant, to teaching preventative medicine to Bachelor of Science or nursing degrees in 1949, to becoming a fully-fledged professor of microbiology by 1955.
Around 1917 Fraser met her life partner, Edith Williams. There were active attempts by both families to keep the women apart, with Williams’ family sending her to England, and Frasers’ family making various threats about how their relationship was pulling their family apart. Although their families tried to separate them, they were lifelong companions until Edith’s death in 1979.
Born June 29th 1956, Richard C. Summerbell is a Canadian mycologist (the study of fungi). In addition to his scientific career, in the 1970s and 80s, he was an activist/spokesperson for topics such as the AIDS crisis and homosexuality.
Summerbell has published over 150 papers in various fields of mycology, though he generally focuses on fungal pathogens that grow on humans and animals, and the ways these organisms exploit their environments. Some of his most impactful work includes the study of biofilms in hospital plumbing that harbour fungal pathogens that attack patients suffering with leukaemia or are recovering from major organ transplants.
Although they might not seem to be connected on the surface, Summerbell’s research has saved the lives of many, and his work raising awareness for the AIDS crisis supported the LGBTQ+ community greatly. He even authored a safe sex campaign series titled “Is There a Condom in Your Life?” in a Toronto gay newspaper.