Lab Partners

A new collection of essays explores the ways scientific couples through history have navigated notions of how and by whom science should be practiced.

By Darleane C. Hoffman | June 12, 2013
Carl and Gerty Cori

Chemists Carl and Gerty Cori in their laboratory. The Coris’ successful collaboration in immunology led to a joint Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1947.

Science History Institute

Annette Lykknes, Donald L. Opitz, and Brigitte Van Tiggelen, editors. For Better or for Worse? Collaborative Couples in the Sciences. Basel: Birkhäuser, 2012. $119.

Science has always been a collaborative endeavor, one where status and recognition are expected to be awarded justly. But what happens when the collaborators are husband and wife? The phrase “for better or for worse” is familiar to married partners and forms the theme of this collection on scientific couples who worked together between the late 18th and the late 20th centuries. They lived in the United States, continental Europe, and Britain, and each pair plays its own distinct role in history. Among them are amateurs, popularizers, ordinary professionals, and even Nobel laureates.

The contributors to this volume, all science historians, assess the success or failure of different styles of collaboration. Anyone interested in the history of science, chemistry, women’s or gay rights, or collaborations in general will find chapters to enjoy in For Better or for Worse? Contributions of special interest to the nonscientist include “Social Science Couples in Britain at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: Gender Divisions in Work and Marriage” and “The Making of a Bestseller: Alexander and Jane Marcet’s Conversations on Chemistry.

The case of Jane Marcet, who became far more famous than her husband, is possibly the most unusual. She first published her popular Conversations on Chemistry in 1806 with a collaborator—presumed by most to be her husband, a doctor. Marcet’s preface declared that the book was written by a woman and “particularly intended for a feminine readership,” though it proved popular with all genders, generating multiple British and American editions as well as several foreign-language translations.

Historically, however, the most common situations were those in which the husband received the credit, and even in some cases a Nobel Prize, for collaborative work done by both partners. Joy Harvey cites the case of André Lwoff and Marguerite Bordeleix Lwoff as epitomizing the problems faced by a brilliant scientist-wife. The two married in Paris when Marguerite was already working as André’s close colleague. Husband and wife published together, although Marguerite also published separately under her own name. But when André received a Nobel Prize in 1965, in conjunction with a male colleague and a male former student, no mention was made of Marguerite’s seminal contributions.

The shift in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from amateur to professional science often raised extra barriers to collaboration. Scientific couples faced antinepotism rules at universities and even some commercial organizations; these rules especially affected the careers of wives. But there are some notable success stories.

Gerty and Carl Cori, who jointly received the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, provide a good case study. They married while young medical students in Prague and published jointly on immunology before coming to the United States after World War I. Though employed at different institutes, they continued collaborative work despite disapproval from their respective bosses. When Carl was offered a chairmanship at Washington University in St. Louis, he refused to go unless a suitable position was offered to Gerty. Both were given positions, but only after the two jointly received the Nobel Prize did Gerty obtain a full professorship.

Probably the best-known success story is that of the Curies. (Less well known is that Marie Curie was to be left out of the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics until Pierre objected.) Irene Joliot-Curie, Marie’s daughter, and Frederick Joliot, who shared the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, were careful to point out in their published papers individual as well as joint contributions. These cases serve to validate the advice I continue to give female graduate students: choose your significant other very carefully.

Marsha L. Richmond writes about Anna Rachel Whiting and Phineas Westcott Whiting as a model collaborative couple. The two married in 1918, creating a mutually satisfactory personal relationship that allowed them to pursue research together even when one was unemployed. Their approach to marriage and science served as a model for the many graduate students in their active research group, which included nearly equal numbers of women and men, something most unusual for the 1930s. Some of the group members married each other and went on to pursue collaborative research together.

Other chapters include Eileen Janes Yeo’s examination of gender divisions in work and marriage in 20th-century Britain, which is still relevant to 21st-century couples. And a topic I have never previously heard openly discussed in the sciences is aired by coeditor and contributor Donald Opitz, who presents an overview of the difficulties inherent in studying same-sex partnerships, given their historical and even current invisibility.

New collaboration styles made possible by modern technologies, such as telecommuting, are considered in the epilogue. Since no living couples were included in this book, the impact of these technologies—especially on women—has not yet been examined. Future research should explore how the contributions of individual scientists are assessed not only in current “big science” groups but in smaller groups of male and female scientists working at different sites and in different countries.