Gendered Bodies and Female Figures

[Katharine Griffiths]

Having transcribed and analysed over six-thousand of the Cambridge Philosophical Society’s anthropometric data cards, I am struck by one big question: where are all the women? Of course, I ask this question already knowing part of the answer. Most Cambridge colleges remained exclusively male throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. Female students in late 19th-century Cambridge attended one of two separate institutions: Newnham College (initially Newnham Hall), and Girton College.[1]  These institutions, established through the initiative of individuals such as Henry Sidgwick, and organisations such as the Association for Promoting the Higher Education of Women in Cambridge, began admitting small numbers of female students in the early 1870s.[2] Nevertheless, despite their lower numbers, one might still expect some women to have entered the Philosophical Library during the course of the anthropometric investigation, and to have been measured along with their male peers. The discrepancy is explained in a report from Newnham College’s Principal of 1898, which highlights both instrument design and concerns surrounding the propriety of measurement:

… it is not altogether convenient for women to be measured at the Philosophical Library, where the apparatus used for the men is, because the head measurements, which are some of the most important, involve, as a rule the taking down of the hair.[3]


An alternative site was established at Newnham College, where apparatus for cranial measurement had been donated by a benefactor named Mary Ewart.[4] Miss Ewart was the daughter of the liberal MP William Ewart, and a close friend of the prominent Unitarians William and Elizabeth Gaskell.[5] Serving on the governing body of a number of educational institutions, and donating large sums to both Bedford College and Newnham, Mary Ewart formed part of a network of school governors and wealthy patrons who aimed to support women’s higher education.[6] She negotiated with architects during Newnham’s construction, and was responsible for securing a mortgage on the building.[7] Despite her generous contribution of special measuring apparatus, however, only one-hundred and fifty measurement cards relating to women have survived, a total dwarfed by the thousands of records for undergraduate men.


Moreover, the sample’s gender discrepancy leads us to ask further questions about the way anthropometric data was produced and the purposes it was supposed to serve. One of the first publications to have incorporated the data was Karl Pearson’s investigation of the correlation between intelligence and cranial dimensions, delivered to the Royal Society on 23 January 1902.[8] Intriguingly, whilst women were absent from the data set, the report relied heavily on female labour. The transcription of the data was carried out by two students of Girton College named Mildred Barwell and Miss Beeton.[9] Perhaps more significantly, the majority of the mathematical processing was performed by two female statisticians. Pearson acknowledged the input of his female employees in his introduction: ‘Nearly the whole work of calculation is due to Dr. Alice Lee and Miss M. A. Lewens. The conclusions, therefore, are a co-operative product of the biometric workers associated with me at University College, London.’[10]


The ambiguous status of women in the work of early anthropometrists, combined with gendered nature of the conclusions drawn by practitioners such as Karl Pearson, illustrates the shaping of such work by the assumptions and values of its time. However, the presence of women such as Alice Lee in Pearson’s workforce complicates the impression of anthropometry as an exclusively masculine exercise. In this entry, I will explore the framing of gender in early 20th-century biometric science, and profile the work of female practitioners whose careers could be seen to have challenged this framework.


The Female Observer

The human story of Karl Pearson’s biometric laboratory presents a complex web of relationships and agendas. Individual ambitions were furthered, whilst shared goals were defined and pursued. This environment was complicated further by values and assumptions based on gender.


Before Pearson was given charge of a larger and more extensive biometrics laboratory at University College London in 1907, which he renamed the ‘Galton Laboratory’ after its benefactor, a grant from the Worshipful Company of Drapers of £1000 enabled him to establish a smaller one in 1903.[11] Here, Alice Lee (computator) and John Clakeman (microscopist) were employed as permanent assistants, working alongside around a dozen other non-permanent teaching assistants and researchers.[12] The laboratory was a significant improvement on the previous ‘instrument room’ at the university, where most of the work was ‘entirely done by volunteer workers’.[13] In his forward to the biometric sections of the Drapers’ Company Research Memoirs, Pearson described his desire to, ‘commemorate this – probably, first occasion on which a great City Company has directly endowed higher research work in mathematical science’.[14] Such considerations illustrate how anthropometry was a field subject to the shifting patterns of patronage and funding. Importantly, those employed by Pearson using the Draper’s Company’s grant were a mix of both men and women. Most significant to Pearson was the educational background of his workers.[15]


A significant figure at the laboratory was the statistician Alice Lee. Lee had studied at Bedford College for Women between 1876 and 1884, entering the first higher mathematics class established at the college in 1879. Five years later, she became the first student from Bedford College to receive a B.Sc, gaining her BA in 1885.[16] She remained at the college as a teacher until her resignation in 1916, serving as an instructor of mathematics and physics to the first generations of female university students.[17]


It was as a result of her association with the college that she first encountered Karl Pearson. In 1892, Karl Pearson published an article in the Pall Mall Gazette, responding to the Albert Charter’s vision for a new University of London. Suggestions that the new university might incorporate technical and instructional institutions led Pearson to question the credentials of colleges such as Bedford:

As for the Birkbeck, the various mechanics’ institutes, and ladies’ colleges, they are doing, no doubt, good work; but that work is not academic, as is sufficiently indicated when we say that a teacher at one of the latter has been known to lecture on mathematics, and on physics, and on classics at or about the same time.[18]


Chemistry lab in Bedford College 1874

Royal Holloway Archives, BC PH/2/2/4, ‘Chemistry Lab in Bedford College in 1874’.

This criticism of teaching standards drew immediate response in the Gazette, with an official from Bedford College asking: ‘Is Professor Pearson quite sure of this point even with regard to one college?’[19]  The correspondent continued, illustrating that teaching provision could not be used to distinguish between institutions such as University College and female colleges such as Bedford:

The same professor has never lectured here on physics, on mathematics, and on classics, or indeed on any two of those subjects. It is true that the assistant professor of mathematics is also demonstrator in physics (as is the case at University College), but has never at any time held the post of teacher in classics.’[20]

Rather than responding to Pearson’s criticism in print, Lee wrote to him directly to defend the academic integrity of her college.[21]


Following this exchange, Alice Lee began to correspond with Karl Pearson in a very different way. From 1892, she assisted his research as a calculator and mathematician, before becoming employed as a research assistant at the Draper’s Company Biometric Laboratory. Most significantly, she developed a series of equations that allowed the capacity of the skull to be estimated using external measurements, rather than by filling them with sand.[22] This innovation appeared to provide a means of comparing the cranial capacity and intellectual qualities of living subjects. Lee also attended Pearson’s statistical lectures at University College London, and corresponded with him about quantitative methods.[23] As a result of her willingness to challenge Pearson, she found herself the mistress of a wealth of data with which to conduct biometric investigations. This raw data provided the evidence she needed to explore relationships between head size and intelligence, the subject upon which she would base her doctoral thesis.[24]


Her data related almost exclusively to male subjects. In a society where women were more often passive subjects of a medical or scientific gaze, Lee had become the observer.[25] This subversion of the gender relations expressed through experimentation and inspection reminds us that scientific practices have the potential both to reflect and to challenge societal expectations.


Lee worked as Pearson’s research assistant until 1907, becoming an important part of the Biometric Laboratory. A letter from Karl Pearson to his close friend and senior colleague Francis Galton in December 1908 summarised the contribution that Lee, and other female calculators, had made to his research:

Among the fourteen workers in the Biometric and Eugenics Laboratories at present we have five women and their work is equal at the very least to that of the men. I have to treat them as in every way the equals of the men. They are women who in many cases have taken higher academic honours than the men and who are intellectually their peers.[26]


The context for this letter was the possibility that a number of female workers would leave the laboratory; Alice Lee had resigned her position in 1907 due to ill-health, whilst another statistician, Ethel Elderton, was considering assuming a secretarial post at a London college.[27] Pearson wanted Galton to assure the laboratory’s female contingent that their work was appreciated and their competence acknowledged. This had been called into question by recent events, as Pearson informed Galton: ‘they were a little tried …when your name appeared on the Committee of the Anti-suffrage society!’[28]


Despite Pearson’s endorsements of his female employees, and his personal intervention in support of Lee’s PhD thesis, her position within the laboratory had still been characterised by structures of power and priority in which her gender was a determining factor. During her time at the lab, Lee was poorly remunerated for her work. An arrangement of three full days of research assistance per week, supplemented by considerable work during holidays, gave a salary of £90 for each annual session.[29] This was significantly less than was required to run a household independently, and compared unfavourably to the wages earned by the mistresses of public schools, or the College Fellowships offered to men.[30]


The presence of male co-workers was also seen to cap the career progression of female researchers. For example, Galton’s reply to Pearson on the subject of Ethel Elderton’s position suggested that it, ‘would not do to promote her over Heron, but hereafter when his term terminates it might be easily done’.[31] It was seen as inappropriate to elevate Miss Elderton’s status and pay above her male colleague, Heron, despite the possibility that she might leave the laboratory. Pearson worried that, ‘it would take years to get any one with the same training,’ and that, ‘she is the life and soul of the place, knows the whole the material, writes all the letters and keeps everything going’.[32]


Alongside this, accounts of the experiences of Alice Lee as a doctoral candidate suggest that female statisticians’ research was subject to uncommon scrutiny and criticism by their peers. Lee’s thesis was questioned by her examiners, Joseph Larmor, Sir William Turner, and Ernest Hobson, who suggested she was merely copying ideas from her supervisor, Karl Pearson.[33] It was only after Pearson’s robust defence of Lee’s work that her PhD was granted.


The Female Observed

Whilst Pearson was willing to employ women who demonstrated mathematical and statistical skills, and to endorse the work of his female protégé, a closer inspection of his views on the nature and competencies of women hints at some of the difficulties they may have faced when pursuing a career in his biometric laboratory. Beyond their individual capacities and contributions to the field, women formed a distinctive aspect of Pearson’s wider political and social views. Associated with this, Pearson’s own relationships with women were characterised by ambiguity and internal conflict. This ideological and interpersonal baggage undoubtedly shaped the lives and careers of those who worked alongside him.


As with his biometric investigations, Pearson’s attitude to women was informed by his interest in biology and eugenic science. In both cases, Pearson sought the means to enhance the presence of desirable traits within subject populations, as well as to identify correlates of diseases and disorders.[34] The priority afforded to heredity in Pearson’s social and biological perspective led him to consider the role of sex and selection in determining generational change.[35] These principles were articulated with clarity in his early works, published during the 1880s and 1890s, including titles such as The Chances of Death and Reproductive Selection.[36]


Having lived in Germany for much of the 1880s and been exposed to the Marxist currents circulating at that time, Pearson had absorbed an interest in the principles of state planning and intervention.[37] His earliest essays had titles such as ‘Socialism and Natural Selection’ and ‘Politics and Science’.[38] A prominent strand of Pearson’s socialist ideology advocated the economic independence of all citizens, including women. He wrote:

There is a demand amongst women for self-realisation, for liberty to work and to develop powers, great or small, with which they may be endowed; there is a revolt against women’s lives being devoted to a single activity and to their absolute dependence on a fellow human being.[39]


Pearson envisioned a society whose management would allow for, ‘the replacement of individual dependence and personal control by State protection and State regulation’.[40] As part of this society, Pearson argued that women should receive state compensation for work performed both inside and outside of the home. This included the work of child-bearing.[41] By freeing women from financial dependence, such economic support would allow them to more effectively contribute to the genetic health of future generations.


However, as has been shown, Pearson did not reduce all his relationships with women to eugenic equations. His repulsion at the financial dependence of women on their male counterparts was not solely related to eugenic ideals. It has been speculated that the misery of his own mother, whom he thought to be trapped in an unhappy marriage, acted as a catalyst for Pearson’s concern with individual relationships.[42] He maintained an idealised and romantic view of marriage as ‘based solely & purely upon common sympathy and the tie of friendship.’[43] Perhaps reflecting this, Pearson objected to any form of dependence that made, ‘the fairest human relation a matter of pecuniary arrangement.’[44] Nevertheless, women working in Pearson’s laboratory were pursuing a lifestyle inconsistent with his ultimate ideological commitments; those related to effective child-rearing and the organisation of genetic futures. Whilst Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton were accommodated, their sex marked them as exceptions to conventional or idealised gender roles.


The Female Empowered?

Whilst Alice Lee’s work had an important effect on her contemporaries at Bedford College and within statistical biology, the extent to which this work empowered her, and her female peers, is debatable. By assembling, manipulating, and analysing the data of thousands of undergraduate men, the female staff of the biometric laboratory exercised the power of the scientific gaze. Simply by achieving employment and demonstrating intellectual parity with their male colleagues, female statisticians such as Ethel Elderton were empowered. However, this position was only maintained through the acquiescence of men like Karl Pearson; women were the subjects, rather than the agents, of their success. Whilst elevating their professional, social, and cultural, status, employment at the biometric laboratory served to reinforce extant power structures.[45]


Royal Holloway Archives, BC PH/6/1/1/3, ‘Cricket Practice at Bedford College’ 1923.

This dynamic is particularly apparent in the relationship between Pearson and Alice Lee. Whilst Pearson supported Lee in her work and education, their relationship preserved his seniority and priority.  For example, before meeting Francis Galton to discuss the research conducted for her PhD, Lee received detailed instructions from Pearson about what to say and do.[46] During this meeting, Galton affirmed his belief in the idea of a correlation between cranial capacity and intelligence, a principle that undermined the intellectual parity of the sexes. Similarly, Lee’s appeal for a government pension required the advocacy of her male colleague. Pearson’s duly wrote in support of her case, but placed her work in the context of female contributions to science, ‘few, if any women workers of her period have accomplished as large a bulk of first class research as Dr. Lee.’[47]


Pearson’s employment of female workers did not reflect a belief in the general equality of the sexes, or in the moral value of empowering women as professionals. His use of female labour was driven by the difficulties he faced in attracting male workers to the laboratory and the willingness of women like Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton to accept derisory salaries.


In the same way, he never resolved his theoretical views on the intellectual and biological capacities of women. Despite Karl Pearson’s ardent admiration for his wife, Maria Pearson lived a lonely and seemingly dissatisfied life. In a letter drafted to Maria’s sister in April 1927, Pearson admitted his failures as a husband, having devoted his life to his work rather than to her and their children.[48] Neither his wife, nor the extraordinary mathematicians in his employ, substantially challenged his conception of women’s social and biological role.



Lee’s career, and those of her fellow female statisticians, were productive and influential. Her method for measuring the cranial volume of the skulls of living subjects allowed her to challenge the assumed correlation between this measurement and individual intelligence. In doing so, she also brought into question the assumptions about gender and intellectual potential that had shaped her field. Both directly (through her findings) and indirectly (through the example of her career) Lee demonstrated the equal competency of female scientists. Moreover, she achieved these things in an obstructive scientific community.


Whilst unable to upset the structures of authority in her workplace or in her field, Lee was an important figure for a generation of female mathematicians and statisticians. In illustration of this, we might turn to the evidence of Margaret Tuke, who compiled a history of the earliest years of Bedford College. Tuke describes the influence that Lee had on the first generations of  female graduates:

To us now these successes seem everyday and unimportant or of importance only to the individual. To believers in the higher education of women in the early 1880’s intent on showing what women could do, each success was a matter for enthusiasm.[49]

[1] Sutherland, Gillian, Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind (Cambridge, 2006), p.95; Jones, E.E.C., Girton College, (London, 1913), p.18; Burstyn, Joan, Victorian Education and the Ideal of Womanhood (Oxford, 1980); Sutherland, Gillian, ‘Girton for ladies, Newnham for governesses’, in Smith, Jonathan, and Stray, Christopher, eds. Teaching and Learning in Nineteenth-century Cambridge (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 139-149.
[2] Collini, Stefan, ‘Sidgwick, Henry (1838–1900)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004); Hamilton, Mary, Remembering my Good Friends, London, 1944; Davies, Emily, The Higher Education of Women (London, 1866).
[3] Newnham College Principal’s Report, November 1898, p.34.
[4] Principal’s Report, op. cit. 3, p.34.
[5] Farrell, S. M., ‘Ewart, William (1798–1869)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
[6] Goodman, Joyce, and Harrop, Sylvia eds. Women, Educational Policy-Making and Administration in England, (London, 2002), pp. 42-3.
[7] Sutherland, Gillian, Faith, Duty and the Power of Mind (Cambridge, 2006), p.97.
[8] Pearson, Karl, ‘On the Correlation of Intellectual Ability with the Size and Shape of the Head’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 69 (1901-1902), pp. 333-342.
[9] Pearson, op. cit. 8, pp. 333-342.
[10] Pearson, op. cit. 8, pp. 334.
[11] Magnello, M. E. ‘The Non-correlation of Biometrics and Eugenics: Rival Forms of Laboratory Work in Karl Pearson’s Career at University College London, (Part 1)’, History of Science 37 (1999), p.86.
[12] Magnello, op. cit. 11, p.123.
[13] Pearson, Karl, letter to G. Carey Foster, 26 November 1904, Pearson Papers, UCL, 233.
[14] Pearson, Karl, ‘Foreword,’ in Drapers’ Company research memoirs, vol. 1 (London, 1904).
[15] Magnello, M. E, op. cit. (11), p.89.
[16] Love, Rosaleen, ‘Feminism and Eugenics: Alice Lee and Ethel Elderton’, Annals of Science 36 (1979), pp. 145-158; Ferlier, Louisiane, ‘From the Archives: Alice Lee’s Cranial Capacity’, The Royal Society Publishing Blog, 11 March 2016:; Tuke, Margaret, A History of Bedford College for Women 1849-1936 (Oxford, 1939).
[17] Tuke, Margaret, op. cit. (16) pp. 129-130.
[18] Karl Pearson, ‘The University Problem. II’, Pall Mall Gazette, 2 February 1892, p. 3.
[19] R. L. N., ‘The Albert University Question’, Pall Mall Gazette, 4 February 1892, p. 3.
[20] R. L. N., op. cit. 19, p. 3.
[21] Alice Lee to Karl Pearson, 19 February 1892, Pearson Papers, UCL, C1D5.
[22] Lewenz, M. A., and Pearson, Karl, ‘On the Measurement of Internal Capacity from Cranial Circumferences’, Biometrika 3 (1904), pp. 366-397.
[23] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), pp. 145-158.
[24] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), pp. 145-158.
[25] Vaz, Angelina, ‘Who’s Got the Look? Satre’s Gaze and Foucault’s Panopticism’, Dalhousie French Studies 32 (1995), 33-45; De Bolla, Peter, ‘Visibility of Visuality’, in Brennan, Teresa, and Jay, Martin, eds. Vision in Context (Oxford, 1996), 63-82; Lacan, Jacques, Ecrits: A Selection (New York, 1977); Foucault, Michel, Surveiller et Punir (Paris, 1975).
[26] Pearson to Francis Galton, 15 December 1908, quoted in: Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, vol. 3A (London, 1930), p. 359.
[27] Pearson, Karl, ‘On the Correlation of Intellectual Ability with the Size and Shape of the Head (Preliminary Notice)’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London 69 (1901-1902), p. 359. Lee had been Elderton’s teacher at Bedford College, and had recommended her to Galton as a competent mathematician when she was first employed at the Eugenics Laboratory. See: Love, op. cit. (16), pp. 145-158.
[28] Pearson, Karl, op. cit. (27), pp. 359.
[29] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), pp. 145-158.
[30] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), pp. 145-158; Clara Collet, Educated Working Women (London, 1902).
[31] Pearson to Francis Galton, 15 December 1908, quoted in: Karl Pearson, The Life, Letters and Labours of Francis Galton, vol. 3A (London, 1930), p. 359.
[32] Pearson to Francis Galton, 15 December 1908, quoted in Karl Pearson, op. cit. (31), p.359.
[33] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), pp. 145-158.
[34] Kelves, Daniel J., In the Name of Eugenics, (Harvard 1985), p.39.
[35] Woiak, Joanne, ‘Pearson, Karl (1857–1936)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004).
[36] Pearson, Karl, The Chances of Death and other studies in Evolution (London, 1897)
[37] Woiak, Joanne, op. cit. (35).
[38] Pearson, Karl, op. cit. (36).
[39] Pearson, Karl, op. cit. (36), p. 253.
[40] Pearson, Karl, op. cit. (36), p. 250.
[41] Porter, Theodore, Karl Pearson: The Scientific Life in a Statistical Age, (Princeton, 2004), p. 128.
[42] Joanne Woiak, op. cit. (35).
[43] Porter, Theodore, op. cit. (41), p. 128.
[44] Porter, Theodore, op. cit. (41), p. 128.
[45] Week, David, ‘The trouble with “empowerment”’: empowerment, accessed 17/07/2017
[46] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), p. 152.
[47] Love, Rosaleen, op. cit. (16), p.152.
[48] Karl Pearson to Elisabeth Cobb, 2 April 1927, “Never sent”, quoted in: Porter, Theodore op. cit. (41), p. 174.
[49] Tuke, Margaret, op. cit. (16), pp.129-130.