The Ladies of Llangollen

As we continue to celebrate LGBT History Month, Sarah Bentley explores the relationship between the two 18th century women known as the Ladies of Llangollen. 

“My dear Mrs Goddard I cannot paint our distress.
My dear Sally lept out of a Window last Night and is gone.
We learn Miss Butler of the castle is with her. I can say no more….
We are in the utmost distress and I am sure you pity us…”
– Lady Betty Fownes (from Elizabeth Mavor’s The Ladies of Llangollen)

“Sally” mentioned above was Sarah Ponsonby, an orphan, charge of her late father’s cousins, Sir William and Lady Betty Fownes. Miss Butler “of the castle” was Eleanor Butler: intellectual and passionate, with biting wit. At 29 she was asked to keep a friendly eye on Sarah who’d been placed at Miss Parke’s School near Kilkenny castle in 1768.

Eleanor made a big impact on teenage Sally. Continue reading


Depiction of the body

In the age of the selfie and self-obsession, it’s easy to forget that people have always been drawn to the human body, wether their own or someone else’s. Taryn Cain looks at how our bodies have been depicted throughout history and why. 

Humans have always been fascinated by their own image. Cave drawings of prehistoric man; and the voluptuous figures of fertility, the Venus sculptures, both date from around 35,000 years ago. Around 5,000 years ago people also became more interested in what was inside the body, though they often misunderstood what they saw.

Continue reading



The definition and diagnosis of hysteria has quite a history. Sarah Jaffray takes a look back over the years to explore the beginnings of hysteria in Greece, through to animal magnetism, vibrators and shell shock in WWI. 

When it comes to explaining hysteria, you might have heard some variation of the following.

  1. In ancient Greece it was thought that women’s wombs wandered through their bodies, causing madness: (hystera = womb; hysterikos = of the womb).
  2. Hysteria stems from sexual frustration in women.
  3. (And the one you are most likely to have heard) In the 19th century women thought to have hysteria were “treated” with vibrators by their doctors.

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Intersex, in humans and other animals, is a variation in sex characteristics including chromosomes, gonads, or genitals that do not allow an individual to be distinctly identified as male or female. In this post, Taryn Cain takes us through a potted history of intersexuality.

Freud once said “when you meet a human being, the first distinction you make is ‘male or female?’ and you are accustomed to making the distinction with unhesitating certainty”. At the time, Freud was aware that his contemporaries, namely Hirschfeld and Ellis, knew the idea of absolute certainty was a lie and that they had documented many such people living long and full lives.

Known around the globe as hija, two spirit, kathoey, travestis and khuntha; for most of European history the terms hermaphrodite, and, later, intersex or Disorders of Sex Development (DSD) were used.

Sigmund Freud in 1909.

Sigmund Freud in 1909.

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The Institute of Sexology exhibition is on until September 2015, a candid exploration of the most publicly discussed of private acts. In this post, Taryn Cain leads us through a potted history of nymphomania: its rise and fall and the reasons for both.

Kinsey once said that a nymphomaniac is “someone who has more sex than you do”, and Kinsey was a man who knew what he was talking about. Having collected data on human sexuality for over a decade, he released a book called the Sexual Behaviour in the Human Female in 1953. Among other things, Kinsey claimed that female masturbation was normal, that vaginal orgasms were not the norm and that women were as capable as sexual desire as a man; all claims which went against accepted medical lore at the time. Continue reading

The lab and the gender gap

Eureka: the sexism issue

Eureka: the sexism issue

A few weeks ago we held a ‘Eureka Live’ event on the topic of women in science. It was clearly thought-provoking because several people there, including one of the panel, wrote some interesting and reflective blog posts about it (there was also a lively backchannel on Twitter during the event). We thought it might be worth sharing with you some of what they said.

Della, on her blog ‘and so I said…‘, approached the event through her experience of being unsuccessfully managed by senior women in science. Her detailed account of the event covers the discussion which began with the observation that there are a ‘great number of science undergraduates who are female but the general trend shows a significant dropout at every level of progression’.

Possible reasons for this were explored: parenthood coming at a crucial career point and the social acceptability of a career in science, as well as trickier ground like genetically influenced competitiveness, and innate sexual differences. She concludes that the debate has broadened her horizons on the question, but a nagging question remains:

From this event I have had such an in-depth insight into other people’s ideas of why there is such a deficiency in women becoming successful in science, which make my initial thoughts look quite superficial now.  My main concern, however, relates to why we (including myself) are so assiduous at boosting the field with an influx of women because this has to be more than for the feeling of complacency – surely the focus should just be on the quality of the science.

Elizabeth Gibney on Research Blogs, in ‘Women of science, do you know your place?‘ suggests that diagnosing the problem (especially with a paucity of actual evidence) should come second to trying to fix such obvious inequity:

The point here should be that if we are missing out on such a gigantic resource that is half the population, for both science and equality’s sake we should try and answer some of these questions. We can roll out endless anecdotes and statistics, but a better idea would be to look at what’s behind the present situation and if anything can be done.

Finally, one of the speakers, Athene Donald, was prompted by a question in the discussion to consider the whole issue of confidence in science, and academia generally, in a post ‘Blushes and Bluster‘.  She writes:

I can think of examples of blushing, shy PhD students who feel sick before giving a seminar who then come across as strong and confident when it comes to the actual talk and give an incredibly polished performance. I can think of students who appear to be totally sure of themselves in one-to-one situations, who then fall to pieces and stumble when giving a public presentation and stammer themselves to a standstill in the subsequent question session.

The question of whether over-confidence is an asset or a gendered attribute remains unanswered. That so many people approached the issue of women in science through their personal experience suggests that the question of gender balance in science is important in practice, even if there’s little concrete evidence to back up many of our suppositions about the cause of the imbalance.

If  there’s a success story you’d like to share, nominations for the UKRC’s annual Women of Outstanding Achievement 2011 awards are now open.

We’re always interested in blogs about our exhibitions and events. If you’ve written something and you’d like to let us know about it, please drop me a line: d.birchall@wellcome.ac.uk.