What Lederberg did was spend decades investigating the way micro-organisms share genetic material, trailblazing work at a time when scientists had little sense of what DNA was. So did her first husband, Joshua Lederberg, who died in 2008. Yet far more people have heard of him than of her, a disparity that some experts attribute to a phenomenon known as the Matilda Effect. The term, coined by scientific historian Margaret Rossiter, is a nod to 19th century suffragist Matilda J. Gage, who, as Rossiter puts it, first described the bias that has led to female researchers being “ignored, denied credit or otherwise dropped from sight” throughout history.
The Matilda Effect goes hand in hand with another phenomenon: the Matthew Effect. Per the Gospel of Matthew, those who have plenty shall have more in abundance, while those who have little will find it taken away. Rossiter, now a professor emerita at Cornell University, thought there should be more focus on the fact that female scientists had for centuries ended up on the short end of this maxim. She wrote a paper introducing the term in 1993, and, she says, “it took on a life of its own.”
Lederberg’s legacy matters because she is more proof that science is and has been a realm of women. Today women are better represented, but prejudices linger. And young girls still have fewer scientific role models than boys do.
“We have to work really, really hard on this in our society on every front,” says Handelsman, director of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. “Just the fact that her story is being told now is a triumph.”