The face of the new £50

The Bank of England is accepting nominations of historic scientists to appear on the new £50 note. Nina Chhita discusses why it should be a woman.

In a not-so-traditional pub conversation, it became apparent that none of the people I was surrounded by could name a historic scientist who was a woman. “What about the woman who invented Wi-Fi or computers?!”, someone babbled and then it was onto the next topic. Perhaps a fleeting comment, yet it sadly captured our knowledge on scientists that are women: “that one that did something science-related”.

In November, the Bank of England launched the conversation of scientists into public conversation. Converting the bank notes to polymer serves as an opportunity to feature new Brits on the notes, and the Bank of England has asked for the public’s recommendations for potential people to feature on the new £50 note. The catch is the nominations have to be British scientists.

Perhaps as the British public has not had a brilliant track record with recent voting outcomes (only referring to Boaty McBoatface, of course), the Bank of England will be selecting the scientists on their “strengths” and not how many nominations they receive.

Currently the £50 note features James Watt, a Scottish Engineer renowned for his improvements to steam engine technology, and Matthew Boulton, business partner of the aforementioned. Linking the banknotes is the Queen Elizabeth II, who is the only alive person allowed to appear on a note. The figures on notes depict historic figures that have shaped Britain today and include Winston Churchill (£5 note), former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom; Jane Austen (£10 note), Novelist; and JMW Turner (£20 note to be released in 2020), painter.

Although the £50 comprises the lowest proportion of bank notes circulated, the debate and announcement is a fantastic opportunity to memorialize a scientist and make their work known.

So who should we nominate to be on the new £50 note? I, myself, am hoping for a female scientist.

Hiding behind the veil of “unbiased” and scientific experiments, scientists have incorrectly deemed women as less intelligent.

Science, let alone the public, has not been particularly kind to female scientists. Hiding behind the veil of “unbiased” and scientific experiments, scientists have incorrectly deemed women as less intelligent. If attitudes towards women and science were a person, they would be described as emotionally abusive. The wounds of this poisonous rhetoric are palpable today, as figures from the UK in 2017 demonstrated that women make up only 24% of all people employed in STEM industries.

In spite of these toxic stereotypes, some of the most brilliant scientific minds, who have significantly advanced knowledge, have emerged from Britain. No doubt that these women are rock star scientists within their fields, but moving further away from science, their names are lost to the pits of obscurity. Some potential scientists I would like to appear on the new £50 are:

Ada Lovelace (1815–1852)

In a world without any computers, Lovelace published the world’s first computer program, being a set of instructions of how a machine could calculate Bernoulli numbers.

Hertha Ayrton (1854–1923)

Ayrton was the first woman nominated to become a fellow of the Royal Society. Her most notable discovery was the rationale behind a hissing when using electric arcs, a common source of lighting at the time.

Rosalind Franklin (1920–1958)

Dr. Franklin was a brilliant scientist who used X-ray crystallography to study DNA. Her work played a crucial role in James Watson and Francis Crick constructing the model of the DNA double helix. Watson and Crick went on to receive the prestigious Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962.

Dorothy Hodgkin (1910–1994)

Professor Hodgkin perfected the technique of X-ray crystallography. Her most notable discoveries included elucidating the structures of vitamin B12 and insulin. Professor Hodgkin is the only British woman to become a Nobel science laureate.

Who knows — this debate may spark the next female Nobel science laureate.

It’s time to challenge our perceptions of women in science, and who knows — this debate may spark the next female Nobel science laureate.

Nominations for the scientist to feature on the new £50 note are open until Friday December 14, after which the Bank of England will make the final decision and announce the chosen scientist in 2019.

EDIT: As of November 26, 2018, the Bank of England had received a total of 174,112 nominations, 114,000 of which met the eligibility criteria. As a preliminary step, a list of eligible scientists has been compiled and released. The list included >600 male and <200 female scientists, including the 4 scientists highlighted in this article. Of course there have been sensationalist headlines quoting that Margaret Thatcher could be the face of the £50 note, however the Bank of England have kept tight lipped about a front runner and are still accepting nominations. Bookmakers’ favorites are Stephen Hawking, followed by Dorothy Hodgkin. So stay tuned, a woman could be named the face of science for the new £50 note!

Illustration by Nina Chhita. See more of her illustrations of women in science here.

Nina Chhita
Nina Chhita

Nina is a medical writer and illustrator based in London. She holds an MSc in Developmental Biology.

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