Women’s Hidden Contributions to Modern Genetics Get Revealed by New Study: No Longer Will They Be Buried in the Footnotes

It’s too easy, when our historical knowledge is limited, to mistake effects for causes, to fall for just-so stories that naturalize and perpetuate inequality. Many of us may have only recently learned, for example, that the moon landing would not have been possible without mathematician Katherine Johnson and her Hidden Figures colleagues, or that the Hubble telescope would not have been possible without astronomer Nancy G. Roman (now immortalized in LEGO). Prior to this knowledge, we might have been led to believe that women had little to do with humankind’s first leaps into outer space, to the surface of the moon, and beyond.

Cornell University historian of science Margaret Rossiter has called this phenomenon “the Matilda effect,” after an 1893 essay by suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage. Rossiter spent years trying to counter the dominant narratives that leave out women in science with a multi-volume scholarly history. Counter-narratives like hers now appear regularly online. And popular media like the book, then film, Hidden Figures have inspired other academics to drill into the history of their fields, find the women who have been ignored, and try to understand the how and why.




When Brown University’s Emilia Huerta-Sánchez and San Francisco State University’s Rori Rohlfs saw Hidden Figures, they decided to research their specialization, theoretical population genetics. It may not be as glamorous as space travel, and their research may not become a Hollywood film or LEGO set, but the results they unearthed are revelatory and important. During the 1970s, for example, “a pivotal time for the field of population genetics,” notes Ed Yong at The Atlantic, the two researchers and their team of undergraduates found that “women accounted for 59 percent of acknowledged programmers, but just 7 percent of actual authors.”

Those women were scientists doing “crucial work,” writes Yong. One programmer, Margaret Wu, created a statistical tool still regularly used to calculate optimal genetic diversity. Her model appeared in a 1975 paper and is now known as the Watterson estimator, after the “one and only" named author, G.A. Watterson. "The paper has been cited 3,400 times.” Today, “if a scientist did all the programming for a study, she would expect to be listed as an author.” But the practice only began to change in the 1980s, when “programming began changing from a ‘pink collar’ job, done largely by low-paid women, to the male-dominated profession it remains today.”

The marginalization of female programmers during some of the field’s most productive years—their relegation to literal footnotes in history—has created the impression, as Huerta- Sánchez, Rohlfs, and their co-authors write, that “this research was conducted by a relatively small number of independent individual scientists nearly all of whom were men.” See a summary of the authors' findings in the video above. To obtain their results, they combed through every issue of the journal Theoretical Population Biology—nearly 900 papers—then pulled out “every name in the acknowledgments, worked out whether they did any programming, and deduced their genders where possible.”

The study, published in the latest issue of Genetics does not comprehensively survey the entire field, nor does it definitively show that every programmer who contributed to a paper did so substantively enough to warrant authorship. But it does not need to do these things. The disparities between named authors and marginally acknowledged scientific laborers in a major journal in the field calls for an explanation beyond selection bias or chance. The explanation of systemic bias not only has the benefit of being well-supported by a huge aggregate of data across the sciences, but it also presents us with a situation that can be changed when the problems are widely seen and acknowledged.

The study's results "dispel the misconception that women weren't participating in science," the researchers point out in their video, and they suggest that a significant number of women in genetics weren't given the credit they deserved. Huerta- Sánchez and Rohlfs walk their talk. The undergraduate researchers who worked on "Illuminating Women's Hidden Contribution to Historical Theoretical Population Genetics" are all named as authors in the paper, so that their contributions to writing a new history of their field can be recognized.

via The Atlantic

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

An Animated Introduction to the Forgotten Pioneer in Quantum Theory, Grete Hermann

From Aeon Video comes a short, vividly-animated tribute to Grete Hermann (1901-1984), the German mathematician and philosopher who made important, but often forgotten, contributions to quantum mechanics. Aeon introduces the video with these words:

In the early 20th century, Newtonian physics was upended by experiments that revealed a bizarre subatomic universe riddled with peculiarities and inconsistencies. Why do photons and electrons behave as both particles and waves? Why should the act of observation affect the behaviour of physical systems? More than just a puzzle for scientists to sort out, this quantum strangeness had unsettling implications for our understanding of reality, including the very concept of truth.

The German mathematician and philosopher Grete Hermann offered some intriguing and original answers to these puzzles. In a quantum universe, she argued, the notion of absolute truth must be abandoned in favour of a fragmented view – one in which the way we measure the world affects the slice of it that we can see. She referred to this idea as the ‘splitting of truth’, and believed it extended far beyond the laboratory walls and into everyday life. With a striking visual style inspired by the modern art of Hermann’s era, this Aeon Original video explores one of Hermann’s profound but undervalued contributions to quantum theory – as well as her own split life as an anti-Nazi activist, social justice reformer and educator.

The short was directed and animated by Julie Gratz and Ivo Stoop, and produced by Kellen Quinn.

via Aeon

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Designer Creates a 3D-Printed Stamp That Replaces Andrew Jackson with Harriet Tubman on the $20 Bill

Above we have a very short video of a hand stamping the face of freedom fighter and abolitionist Harriet Tubman, aka Araminta Ross, over the stony mug of Andrew Jackson, aka Old Hickory, “Indian Killer,” and slaveholding seventh president of the United States who presided over the Indian Removal Act that inaugurated the Trail of Tears with a speech to Congress in which he concluded the only alternative to forcing native people off their land might be “utter annihilation.”

Hero to America Firsters, Jackson has featured on the U.S. twenty-dollar bill since 1928. Ironically, he was bestowed this honor under Calvin Coolidge, a progressive Republican president when it came to Civil Rights, who in 1924 signed the Indian Citizenship Act into law, granting all Indigenous people dual tribal and U.S. citizenship.




Anyway, you’ll recall that in 2016, Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew announced “the most sweeping and historically symbolic makeover of the American currency in a century,” as The New York Times reported, “proposing to replace the slaveholding Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill with Harriet Tubman.”

Furthermore, Lew planned to add historic feminist and Civil Rights figures to the five and ten dollar bills, an idea that did not come to fruition. But as we awaited the replacement of Jackson with Tubman, well… you know what happened. Andrew Jackson again became a figurehead of American racism and violence, and the brutal new administration walked back the new twenty. So designer Dano Wall decided to take matters into his own hands with the creation of the 3D-printed Tubman stamp. As he shows in the short clip above, the transformed bills still spend when loaded into vending and smart card machines.

Of course you might never do such a thing (maybe you just want to print Harriet Tubman faces on plain paper at home?), but you could, if you downloaded the print files from Thingiverse and made your own Tubman stamp. Wall refers to an extensive argument for the legality of making Tubman twenties. It perhaps holds water, though the Treasury Department may see things differently. In the British Museum “Curator’s Corner” video above, numismatist Tom Hockenhull shows us a precedent for defacing currency from shortly before World War I, when British suffragists used a hammer and die to stamp “Votes for Women” over the face of Edward VII.

The “deliberate targeting of the king,” writes the British Museum Blog, “could be likened to iconoclasm, a direct assault on the male authority figures that were perceived to be upholding the laws of the country.” It’s a practice supposedly derived from an even earlier act of vandalism in which anarchists stamped “Vive l’Anarchie” on coins. The process would have been difficult and time-consuming, “probably carried out by a single person using just one set of individual alphabet stamps.” Thus it is unlikely that many of these coins were made, though historians have no idea how many.

But the symbolic protest did not stand alone. The defaced currency spread the message of a broad egalitarian movement. The ease of making Tubman twenties could spread a contemporary message even farther.

via Kottke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Joan Jett Started the Runaways at 15 and Faced Down Every Barrier for Women in Rock and Roll

These are dark days for everyone who cares about equality. After decades of painful progress and some hard-won victories for women in the U.S., the guardians of patriarchy seem hellbent on undoing modernity and setting the clock back decades to keep power. The misogynistic spectacle is nauseating. One remedy, Rebecca Traister recommends in her new book of the same name, is to get “good and mad.” The voices of women resisting the current wave of political attacks can guide righteous outrage in constructive directions, and we can learn much from women who pushed past the same barriers in the past through sheer force of will.

Women like Joan Jett, who, in a recent interview with Courtney Smith at Refinery 29 expressed her thoughts on the challenges of the present (“I think it’s still very much the same as it was many years ago”). Her advice: conquer fear.




“People count on you being fearful,” she says, “as a woman or whoever you are and whatever you want to do. They count on that fear to keep them from forging ahead and figuring that out. It’s definitely fear-inducing, and it’s not a fear you want to face. But it is doable.” The rock icon director Kevin Kerslake (who has just released a Jett documentary) calls a “feminist manifesto in the flesh” should know.

Jett herself expresses some discomfort with the label of feminism ("I'm for people being what they want to be"), but her career has served for decades as a model for women seizing power in the music industry, and she's never had any patience with sexist discrimination. She “wanted to be a rocker ever since she got a hold of a guitar, even though she was told girls don’t play rock and roll. That didn’t stop her from forming The Runaways despite the sexist roadblocks the band faced.” So goes the description for Marc Maron’s recent interview with Jett on his WTF podcast. The ugliness women in rock faced in the 70s is depressingly familiar. Before she even learned to play, Jett was told by a guitar teacher, “girls don’t play rock and roll.”

Undaunted, she quit lessons, taught herself, and learned her favorite songs (Free’s “Alright Now” topped the list). Then, when her family moved to L.A., she sought out other like minds to form an all-girl rock band. With no examples to look to, Jett figured it out on her own, finding a club that played glam rock for teenagers and finding her people. At fifteen years old, without songs or a demo tape, she called producer Kim Fowley, then started assembling the Runaways, starting with drummer Sandy West, then, after playing as a trio with Micki Steele, recruiting lead guitarist Lita Ford, bassist Jackie Fox, and singer Cherie Currie. “We went in the studio right away,” she tells Maron.

The Runaways were “trying to express ourselves the way we knew how,” Jett says in her interview with Smith. “Not much different from what the Rolling Stones were doing. We didn’t want barriers put up on what we were allowed to sing about, say, or play.” By 1976, they were signed to Mercury Records, releasing their debut album, and touring with Cheap Trick, Van Halen, Talking Heads, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. The following year, they released Queens of Noise and quickly became associated with punk. American critics savaged the band, and they faced violence and sneering condescension at home but were beloved superstars in Japan (see them play “Cherry Bomb” live in Japan at the top).

When Curry left The Runaways that year, Jett took over as the lead singer, and when the band broke up in 1979, she put herself back together, moved to New York, created her own label after a couple dozen rejections, and formed The Blackhearts. An unstoppable musical force, Jett still plays and tours and still refuses to back down for anyone, even though, she tells Smith, “on some level, it can be easier not to fight and to go along. That’s what women have to decide: do you want to go along, and maybe your life will be a little bit more comfortable if you don’t make waves?”

Her advice is as straightforward as her path has been rocky—“stand up for yourself… You’ve got to resist that. Find someone to support you…. We’re still fighting the same issues that I was discussing years ago. There’s a thing on a loop about what girls can achieve. When they come up, you’ve got to challenge those assumptions at every turn.” If anyone’s earned the right to give advice like that to young musicians, it’s Joan Jett. Check out the trailer for her new documentary Bad Reputation just above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” Slowed Down to 33RPM Sounds Great and Takes on New, Unexpected Meanings

The Walrus isDolly Parton?

Not every record yields gold when played backwards or spun more slowly than recommended, but a 45 of Parton’s 1973 hit “Jolene” played at 33RPM not only sounds wonderful, it also manages to reframe the narrative.

As Andrea DenHoed notes in The New Yorker, “Slow Ass Jolene,” above, transforms Parton’s “baby-high soprano” into something deep, soulful and seemingly, male.




In its original version, the much-covered “Jolene” is a straight up woman-to-woman chest-baring. Our narrator knows her man is obsessed with the sexy, auburn-haired Jolene, to the point where he talks about her in his sleep.

Apparently she also knows better than to raise the subject with him. Instead, she appeals to Jolene’s sense of mercy:

You could have your choice of men

But I could never love again

He's the only one for me, Jolene

The song is somewhat autobiographical, though the situation was nowhere near as dire as listeners might assume. In an interview with NPR, Parton recalled a red-haired bank teller who developed a big crush on her husband when she was a young bride:

And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us — when I was saying, 'Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.' So it's really an innocent song all around, but sounds like a dreadful one. 

For the record, the teller’s name wasn’t Jolene.

Jolene was a pretty little girl who attended an early Parton concert. Parton was so taken with the child, and her unusual name, that she resolved to write a song about her.

Yes, the kid had red hair and green eyes.

Wouldn’t it be wild if she grew up to be a bank teller?

I digress…

In the original version, the irresistible chorus wherein the soon-to-be-spurned party invokes Jolene’s name again and again is plaintive and fierce.

In the slow ass version, it’s plaintive and sad.

The pain is the same, but the situation in much less straightforward, thanks to blurrier gender lines.

Parton told NPR that women are “always threatened by other women, period.”

Jolene’s prodigious feminine assets could also prove worrisome to a gay man whose bisexual lover’s eye is prone to wander.

Or maybe the singer and his man live in a place where same sex unions are frowned on. Perhaps the singer’s man craves the comfort of a more socially acceptable domestic situation.

Or perhaps Jolene is one hot female-identified tomato, and as far as the singer’s man’s concerned, his pastor and his granny can go to hell! Jolene’s the only one for him.

Or, as one waggish Youtube commenter succinctly put it, "Jolene better stay the hell away from Roy Orbison's man!"

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

I'm begging of you please don't take my man

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

Please don't take him just because you can

Your beauty is beyond compare

With flaming locks of auburn hair

With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green

Your smile is like a breath of spring

Your voice is soft like summer rain

And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

He talks about you in his sleep

There's nothing I can do to keep

From crying when he calls your name, Jolene

And I can easily understand

How you could easily take my man

But you don't know what he means to me, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

I'm begging of you please don't take my man

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

Please don't take him just because you can

You could have your choice of men

But I could never love again

He's the only one for me, Jolene

I had to have this talk with you

My happiness depends on you

And whatever you decide to do, Jolene

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

I'm begging of you please don't take my man

Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene

Please don't take him even though you can

Jolene, Jolene

via @WFMU

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, September 24 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

“The Matilda Effect”: How Pioneering Women Scientists Have Been Denied Recognition and Written Out of Science History

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The history of science, like most every history we learn, comes to us as a procession of great, almost exclusively white, men, unbroken but for the occasional token woman—well-deserving of her honors but seemingly anomalous nonetheless. “If you believe the history books,” notes the Timeline series The Matilda Effect, “science is a guy thing. Discoveries are made by men, which spur further innovation by men, followed by acclaim and prizes for men. But too often, there is an unsung woman genius who deserves just as much credit” and who has been overshadowed by male colleagues who grabbed the glory.

In 1993, Cornell University historian of science Margaret Rossiter dubbed the denial of recognition to women scientists "the Matilda effect," for suffragist and abolitionist Matilda Joslyn Gage, whose 1893 essay “Woman as an Inventor” protested the common assertion that “woman… possesses no inventive or mechanical genius." Gage wrote that "even the United States census" failed "to enumerate her among the inventors of the country.” Such assertions, Gage proceeded to demonstrate, “are carelessly or ignorantly made… although woman’s scientific education has been grossly neglected, yet some of the most important inventions of the world are due to her.”




Over 100 years later, Rossiter’s tenacious work in unearthing the contributions of U.S. women scientists inspired the History of Science Society to name a prestigious prize after her. The Timeline series profiles of the few of the women whom it describes as prime examples of the Matilda effect, including Dr. Lise Meitner, the Austrian-born physicist and pioneer of nuclear technology who escaped the Nazis and became known in her time as “the Jewish Mother of the Bomb,” though she had nothing to do with the atomic bomb. Instead, “Meitner led the research that ultimately discovered nuclear fission.” But Meitner would become “little more than a footnote in the history of Nazi scientists and the birth of the Atomic age.”

Instead, Meitner’s colleague Otto Hahn received the accolades, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry and “renown as the discoverer of nuclear fission. Meitner, who directed Hahn’s most significant experiments and calculated the energy release resulting from fission, received a few essentialist headlines followed by decades of obscurity.” (See Meitner and Hahn in the photo above.) Likewise, the name of Alice Augusta Ball has been “all but scrubbed from the history of medicine,” though it was Ball, an African American chemist from Seattle, Washington, who pioneered what became known as the Dean Method, a revolutionary treatment for leprosy.

Ball conducted her research at the University of Hawaii, but she tragically died at the age of 24, in what was likely a lab accident, before the results could be published. Instead, University President Dr. Arthur Dean, who had co-taught chemistry classes with Ball, continued her work. But he failed “to mention Ball’s key contribution” despite protestations from Dr. Harry Hollmann, a surgeon who worked with Ball on treating leprosy patients. Dean claimed credit, and published their work under his name. Decades later, "the scant archival trail of Alice Ball was rediscovered…. In 2000, a plaque was installed at the University of Hawaii commemorating Ball’s accomplishments.”

Other women in the Matilda effect series include bacterial geneticist Esther Lederberg, who made amazing discoveries in genetics that won her husband a Nobel Prize; Irish astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967, but was excluded from the Nobel awarded to her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish and astronomer Martin Ryle. A similar fate befell Dr. Rosalind Franklin, the chemist excluded from the Nobel awarded to her colleagues James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins for the discovery of DNA.

These prominent examples are but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to women who made significant contributions to scientific history and were rewarded by being written out of it and denied awards and recognition in their lifetime. For more on the history of U.S. women in science and the social forces that worked to exclude them, see Margaret Rossiter’s three-volume Women Scientists in America series: Struggles and Strategies to 1940, Before Affirmative Action, 1940-1972, and Forging a New World since 1972. And read Timeline’s Matilda Effect series of articles here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Sarah Bernhardt Becomes the First Woman to Play Hamlet (1899)

At one time, the name Sarah Bernhardt was synonymous with melodramatic self-presentation. In her heyday, the actress created a category all her own—impossible to judge by the usual standards of the dramatic arts. Or as Mark Twain put it, “there are five kinds of actresses: bad actresses, fair actresses, good actresses, great actresses—and then there is Sarah Bernhardt.”

Admired and beloved by Victor Hugo and playwright Edmond Rostand, who called her “the queen of the pose and the princess of the gesture,” Bernhardt commanded attention in every role, and became infamous as “a canny self-promoter,” as Hannah Manktelow writes. Bernhardt “cultivated her image as a mysterious, exotic outsider. She claimed to sleep in a coffin and encouraged the circulation of outlandish rumors about her eccentric behavior.”




Bernhardt’s worldwide fame rested not only on her public relations skill, but also on her willingness to take dramatic risks most actresses of the time would never dare. In one notable example, she played Hamlet in 1899, at age 55, in a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. What’s more, she boldly undertook the role in London, then again in Stratford at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre. Finally, she became the first woman to portray Hamlet on film (see a short clip above).

Reactions to her stage performance by contemporaries were mixed. In her review, actress and writer Elizabeth Robins praised Bernhardt’s “amazing skill” in playing “a spirited boy… with impetuosity, a youthfulness, almost childish.” But Robins issued a qualification at the outset: “for a woman to play at being a man is, surely, a tremendous handicap,” she writes, a criticism echoed by English essayist Max Beerbohm, who went so far as to deny women the power to create art.

“Creative power,” wrote Beerbohm, “the power to conceive ideas and execute them, is an attribute of virility; women are denied it, in so far as they practice art at all, they are aping virility, exceeding their natural sphere. Never does one understand so well the failure of women in art as when one sees them deliberately impersonating men upon the stage.” Setting Beerbohm’s categorically sexist assertions aside (for the moment), we must mark the irony that both he and Robins are troubled by a woman playing a man, given that all of Shakespeare’s female characters were once played by men, a fact both critics somehow fail to mention.

Where Beerbohm saw in Bernhardt’s performance a mere “aping of virility,” Robins, unhampered by Beerbohm's ugly misogyny, observed the great actress in vivid detail, in an essay that brings Bernhardt’s Hamlet to life with descriptions of her, for example, “appealing dumbly for another sign” after seeing her father’s ghost (on painted gauze), “and passing pathetic fluttering hands over the unresponsive surface, groping piteously like a child in the dark.”

The pathos of Bernhardt’s performance was undercut, Robins felt, by some clumsy moments, such as her  mistreatment of poor Yorick’s skull. (A real human skull, by the way, given to her by Victor Hugo). “It was not pleasant,” writes Robins, “to see the grinning object handled so callously…. Indeed, I feel sure that Madame Bernhardt treats her lap-dog more considerately.” On the whole, however, Robins felt the performance a truly dramatic achievement through Bernhardt’s “mastery of sheer poise… of sparing, clean-cut gesture… the effect that the artist in her wanted to produce.”

Further up, see an ink drawing of Bernhardt as Hamlet by Reginal Cleaver and, just above, an 1899 postcard photograph (with Hugo’s gifted skull). Read more about Bernhardt’s performance, and the attendant publicity, at the Shakespeare Blog, and learn about a new play based on Bernhardt’s Hamlet called “The Divine Sarah” at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Shakespeare & Beyond.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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