Therese of Bavaria, Princess, adventurer, and scientist

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“Princess Therese of Bavaria was a multi-talented, clever and extremely courageous woman who, against much opposition and with incredible energy, followed her thirst for knowledge and studied the diversity of nature and indigenous people on her numerous travels.”

– Gudrun Kadereit, Princess Therese von Bayern Chair of Systematics, Biodiversity, and Evolution of Plants.
Princess Therese of Bavaria

Therese von Bayern (1850-1926) was a Bavarian princess, ethnologist, zoologist, botanist, travel writer, and advocate for the education of women.

She was courageous and tough. An adventurer traveling the world, and not giving in to any hardship whatsoever. Wild animals, extreme climate, travel hardships – such phenomena only spurred her on. From her companions, she demanded the same willingness to subordinate everything to her goal. The expeditionary party had to submit to her regiment without contradiction and forego any comforts. Riding for several days at a high marching pace for ten hours was the rule, as were night camps with strangers and animals in rooms that were noisy, cold, humid, and full of vermins. Neither extreme heat nor cold, neither pneumonia nor altitude sickness and malaria attacks, neither a broken luggage cart nor a broken rib could slow the princess down.  

Her scientific mindset was extraordinary. She learned 12 languages, and every expedition was well prepared, she knew which specimens were still missing in the Bavarian museums and collections. It took her nearly 10 years of diligent work to complete the journal-like report on her 1888 expedition to Brazil, the book was well written, and plenty of footnotes comparing her findings with those in the literature.

She was Catholic. Her journal provides insights into her deep piety and her prayerful thoughts. Her faith was also caritative as exemplified in her care for wounded soldiers in her villa in Lindau am Bodensee during WWI.

And she was loyal to the people she loved. In 1864, her mother asked her on her deathbed to care for her father and her brothers, a wish she fulfilled diligently, but as she said later, nearly smashed her, since she was only 13 years old. Her father became the Prince Regent, the de facto ruler of Bavaria in 1886 and she stood at his side until his death in 1912. As a young girl, she fell in love with her cousin Otto, a love forever unfulfilled, given his poor health and psychiatric disease. She always remained loyal to her love and refused to marry despite the wishes of her family.

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Catholic Women Pioneers of Science

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This blog post accompanies a poster I will present at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Catholic Scientists taking place at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary near Chicago.

You can download the poster here >>

Starting in the late 18th century, women were opening carrier paths in many disciplines. This presentation will focus on 12 female Catholic scientists that may serve as role models that can guide us to integrate Science and our Catholic faith into our own lives to become one of the “saints next doors”, as Pope Francis encouraged us recently.

12 Women from the late 18th to the end of the 20 century from a variety of scientific disciplines are presented here. They had two characteristics in common:

  • they have had an impact on the science and/or scientific education of their time and
  • their lives were informed, transformed, and inspired by their Catholic faith.

Life Sciences / Archaeology

Therese von Bayern (1850-1926) was a Bavarian princess, ethnologist, zoologist, botanist, travel writer, and advocate for the education of women. She led 2 scientific expeditions to South America with a truly adventurous spirit, describing them in carefully researched publications and books. She was elected by the Bavarian Academy of Sciences in 1892 as its first honorary female member and five years later became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Munich. Her diary reveals her close relationship with God and her deep piety. Her faith was also caritative as exemplified in her care for wounded soldiers in her villa in Lindau am Bodensee during WWI. Another characteristic was her loyalty to the people she loved. In 1864, her mother on her deathbed asked her to care for her father and her brothers, a wish she fulfilled diligently. In 1886, her father became the Prince Regent, the de facto ruler of Bavaria. She stood by his side until his death in 1912. As a young girl, she fell in love with her cousin Otto, a love forever unfulfilled, given his poor health and psychiatric disease. Yet, she remained loyal to her love and refused to marry despite the wishes of her family.

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Agnes Mary Clerke: Writing on Stars and People

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Agnes Mary Clerke

Agnes Mary Clerke (1842 – 1907) was an astronomer and science educator. She was born in Skibbereen, Ireland. Together with her sister Ellen, she received an exceptional level of knowledge, through the Ursuline nuns, and her parents. By the age of eleven, she had read Herschel’s Outlines of Astronomy. At the age of 15, she began to write her own history of astronomy. Agnes’s father owned a 4-inch telescope, and she grew up regularly observing Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons. She and her sister spent ten years in Italy, mainly living in Florence where they studied science, acquired literary skills, and became excellent linguists. In 1877 the sisters went to London where the family was reunited.

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Spanish chemist Piedad de la Cierva: an “invisible” pioneer

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Piedad de la Cierva

I am calling Piedad de la Cierva here an “invisible” pioneer because the only information available on the internet is in Spanish, not in any other language. And even in Spain, she is not yet well known. As a chemist, she was a pioneer in three distinct areas, forced to switch gears due to external circumstances, which she developed into opportunities. In Spain of the 1940ies, she was years ahead of her time and therefore failed in her aspirations for a life in academia, turning instead to decades of fruitful industrial research.

Piedad de la Cierva Viudes (01 June 1913 – 31 Dicember 2007) was one of the first female chemists in Spain. After studying in Murcia and Valencia, she obtained her PhD in the National Institute of Physics and Chemistry situated in the Rockefeller Building in Madrid.

De la Cierva later recalled:

“I remember my great surprise when I realized that I was able to calculate the distance between the chlorine and sodium atoms of a salt crystal. And how impressed I was that God, Creator of the Universe, had distributed the atoms, so small, in such an amazing way”.

In 1935, she moved to the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen for her investigations on the nuclear transmutation of aluminum and the separation of bromine isotopes. In Copenhagen, she stayed at the Convent of the sisters of the Assumption where she fondly remembered the friendship of her tutor, Mother Hildegard. In her travels to Paris and Berlin, she met Irène Joliot Curie, the daughter of Marie Curie, herself a renowned chemist and Nobel Prize Laureate, Lise Meitner who would later immigrate to Sweden and the USA, and the couple Ida and Walter Noddak.

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Máirín de Valéra: A Passion for Botany

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Máirín de Valéra

Máirín de Valéra (12 April 1912 – 8 August 1984) was a leading expert in phycology – the study of algae – and the first Professor of Botany in Galway, Ireland. She had a winning personality, was known for her rigorous examination of the botanical courses she gave, and for her deep knowledge of seaweeds on the Irish west coast, which she explored mostly on foot or by bicycle. She has a famous father, Éamon de Valéra who was one of the leaders of the 1916 Easter Uprising, was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland three times and was twice as President; and her mother wrote popular children’s books in Irish.

After receiving her Master’s degree from the University of Dublin, Máirin continued her studies and investigations in Aberystwyth, Wales, and then at the Marine Biological Laboratory at Kristineberg, Sweden, turning her interest to seaweeds. She returned to Ireland in 1939 and obtained a position as an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Natural History at University College Galway. She taught nearly all the botany courses, and with a double workload since she gave many lectures in both English and Irish.

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Catholic female scientists through the centuries

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The following blog post comes from a presentation I gave recently for some wonderful women across Europe in a monthly zoom meeting, called “Catholic Women in STEM”*. For some of the women presented here, you will find more information in previous blog posts – just follow the links.

Monasteries and Female Excellence in Science

First, let us go back in history for nearly 1.000 years.

Medieval monasteries allowed women to develop their talents, being free from the hardship that wives and mothers experienced at that time. And these women made their contributions in science, in art and in society. We start with contributions to science:

St. Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179) was a German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath. She is considered to be the founder of scientific natural history in Germany.

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Also these 10 women scientists didn’t see a conflict between science and faith

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Today is Women’s day – time to remember the contribution of Christian female scientists and time to post the 2nd installment (first one here), bringing the number of women scientists portrayed on our blog to 30. We cover women from 4 centuries, contributing to mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, geology and scientific illustration.

Elena Cornaro Piscopia (1646-1684) was the first woman to receive a ‘Doctor of Philosophy’, a ‘Ph.D.’ degree in 1678. Although she was learned in mathematics and other science fields, her real focus was in theology and philosophy. The Roman Catholic Church, though, did not think at that time it was proper for a woman to earn a degree in theology. The University of Padua allowed Piscopia to graduate with her Ph.D. in Philosophy instead.  Ceremonies of the sort were usually held in one of the University’s buildings, but there were so many people who wanted to come watch the proceedings that they could not all fit into University Hall, and thus they chose a larger place to hold the ceremony. It was especially remarkable when we consider that the University of Padua did not award another Ph.D. to a woman for over 300 years. Elena was a member of various academies and was esteemed highly throughout Europe. In 1665, she took the habit of a Benedictine Oblate and devoted the last seven years of her life to charity and working with the poor. She died at the age of 38 of tuberculosis.

Marie-Anne Lavoisier (1758-1836) was a French chemist and noble. Madame Lavoisier was the wife of the chemist and nobleman Antoine Lavoisier and acted as his laboratory companion and contributed to his work. Her husband, Antoine Lavoisier, was sentenced to death in the aftermath of the French Revolution, after having found again his faith in God. She herself was a faithful Catholic and was theologically well versed. She was instrumental in the 1789 publication of her husband’s Elementary Treatise on Chemistry, which presented a unified view of chemistry as a field. She contributed thirteen drawings that showed all the laboratory instrumentation and equipment used by the Lavoisiers in their experiments. She also kept strict records of the procedures followed, lending validity to the findings Lavoisier published.

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Elena Ivanovna Kasimirchak-Polonskaya: studying God’s planets

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Elena Polonskaya (1902-1992) is a fascinating woman: she was a renowned astronomer who lost her job in the Communist regime, was accused of espionage due to her missionary activities, put into prison for several months, but later re-instated as university professor. And finally, she became a nun in the Russian-Orthodox Church and taught bible studies and other theological topics. She has an asteroid named after her, but she does not yet have a Wikipedia article in English. Here is her biography.

Elena Ivanovna Polonskaya was born on 21 November 1902 in Selets, in the Volyn province in today’s Ukraine to parents from the Russian nobility. She studied astronomy at the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at the Lviv University. In 1923, she participated in the first meeting of the Russian Christian Student Movement in Czechia. From 1926 to 1928 she was an active member of this movement and its leader for Poland and Belarus. She acted as editor of the religious political journal “At the Borderline”. She participated in apologetic summer courses in Paris founded by Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov, her spiritual father.

In 1932, she became assistant at the Astronomical Observatory in Warsaw. In 1934, she defended her Ph.D. thesis „On the planetocentric motion of comets“ in Warsaw. In 1936, she married Leon Kazimierczak, an ichtyologist at Warsaw University, and in May 1937, their son Sergei (named after Sergei Bulgakov) was born. During World War II, she worked as Senior Scientist at the Department of Astronomy in Lviv and moved to Warsaw in 1944. During the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, she became separated from her husband who was brought to a camp near Vienna as war prisoner. In 1945, she made a very bold and crucial decision for her later life: As an Orthodox, she decided to return to Russia, although totalitarian Soviet Union at that time. She first lived in Cherson (in today’s Ukraine) where her son died of meningitis in July 1948. She never saw her husband again, since he was not allowed to enter the USSR.

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Christian Women in Science

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To close the year 2019, I have introduced a new category that will allow you to browse all the amazing Christian Women in Science, starting at the Middle Ages up to 21st century that are presented on this blog: it is a long list, and there is more to come!

Why is it important to present ‘Christian Women in Science’?

In the introduction to my article on Mary Anning, Marie Buckland and Charlotte Murchison, three early paleontologists, I said:

“Women are still minorities in the sciences, and we should change that in the 21st century.  Although there is no “magic bullet” to close the gender gap in science, everyone who studies the problem agrees on one thing—the importance of female role models in changing girls’ perceptions of themselves. As a female scientist, I have to agree. But at the same time, I am a Christian female scientist, and young girls need to know that it’s possible to be both.


What constitutes a ‘Christian Woman in Science?

In an earlier post, I identified two characteristics:

(1) they have had an impact on the science and/or scientific education at their time and
(2) there is some kind of proof that their Christian faith – in whatever faith tradition, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox – was important to their personal life.

Or in other words: female scientists whose life was informed, transformed and inspired by their faith.

Sister Mary Celine Fasenmyer and Mathematics

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Sister Mary Celine Fasenmyer, R.S.M., (October 4, 1906, Crown, Pennsylvania – December 27, 1996, Erie, Pennsylvania) was a mathematician, most noted for her work on hypergeometric functions and linear algebra.

She grew up in Pennsylvania and displayed mathematical talent in high school. For ten years after her graduation she taught and studied at Mercyhurst College in Erie, where she joined the Sisters of Mercy. She pursued her mathematical studies in Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan, obtaining her doctorate in 1946 under the direction of Earl Rainville with a dissertation entitled Some Generalized Hypergeometric Polynomials.

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