Royal Society and Wikimedia UK mark Ada Lovelace Day with event to promote work of female scientists

By late afternoon scores of red women on Sam Haskell's list had turned blue: female scientists, some dead and some living, many immensely distinguished, some geniuses, but whose names have almost been forgotten even by their peers.

Up the grand marble staircase of the Royal Society in London, under the imposing gold and white library ceiling, women and a handful of men had gathered, joined by many more online across the world, to correct a gross injustice.

The list gradually changing colour on Haskell's screen represented hundreds of women scientists who have either never had a Wikipedia entry, or whose lives and work are dismissed in a stub a few lines long.

The names turning blue represented the success of a live edit-a-thon jointly organised by the Royal Society, where Haskell is digital communications officer, and Wikimedia UK – together with the promoters of Ada Lovelace Day, held every year in honour of the 19th-century mathematician, daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who became a pioneer of computing theory.

The event in London was booked out for weeks, but many more joined online, some starting work days ago.

Prof Uta Frith, psychologist, fellow of the Royal Society and one of the event organisers, arrived determined to rescue the reputation of Mary Buckland, a scientist and brilliant natural history illustrator, from the shadow of her husband, a 19th-century librarian and fellow of the society. She found to her surprise that somebody online had got there before her. She settled down with a stack of books to expand it, but found, as so often, that she was having to fillet scraps about Mary from the biographies of her husband and son.

"It is shameful that when you ask people, including scientists, to name well-known female scientists and engineers, they can barely get past Marie Curie," she said. "I think this is very much because they are not in our consciousness, or they have not been given high enough profile for their work. Wikipedia is one of the first places that many people go for information, but if it's not there how will we ever learn about our scientific heroines. This event is a very small but important step towards putting these very special women in the spotlight they deserve."

Typical of many female scientists, Frith suspects, she has never even looked at her own Wikipedia entry (a respectable six paragraphs and a chunky slab of references) and wouldn't dream of editing it. "I just couldn't" she said, slightly puzzled, "I wouldn't even want to read it. It just wouldn't seem right."

Entries added for living scientists included Eleanor Maguire, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, who briefly gave every grumpy London taxi driver a glow of happy pride when her research proved their brains developed remarkably as they acquired "the knowledge", their hard- wired interior maps of every street in London. Up until Friday, she had not had even a stub in Wikipedia.

Other stubs were expanded. Dame Louise Napier-Johnson, a biochemist and protein crystallographer, professor of molecular biophysics at Oxford for 17 years from 1990, had previously merited just eight lines, one taken up with noting her death last month, and her marriage to the Nobel laureate Abdus Salam. His entry runs to more than 200 lines.

Sometimes there was an audible snarl in the room as the researchers discovered a clue as to how these women retired into the shadows. In 1878 Mary Elizabeth Barber, a UK-born, South African-reared scientist who identified many new plant species, and indirectly influenced Darwin, was invited to join a distinguished South African natural history society.

She responded: "I don't see any reason why a lady should in a quiet way be a member of any scientific society … I do not by any means approve of ladies coming publicly forward and usurping the places of men by preaching, making speeches etc, but I don't see why they should not belong to any society that they are qualified for, and in a quiet way enjoy the privileges too."

"Well honestly!" snapped Seirian Sumner, a research fellow at the Institute of Zoology at London Zoo, sisterly solidarity slipping for an instant, before she resumed her effort to haul Barber's reputation back into the light.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

[Portrait of Ada Lovelace via Wikipedia Commons]