Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Matilda Effect

Jocelyn Bell Burnell

I watched a fascinating New York Times documentary yesterday about Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the woman who discovered pulsars in 1967 while a graduate student at Cambridge University working on her thesis project. This was big news in the world of astronomy but most of the credit for the discovery went to Jocelyn’s thesis supervisor Anthony Hewish, who in 1974 won the Nobel Prize for ‘his’ discovery.

In the documentary, Jocelyn talks about reporters coming to interview the two of them after the discovery was made public and they directed all their scientific questions to Anthony while Jocelyn the ‘girl astrophysicist’ was merely seen as a human interest part of the story and was asked to open more buttons on her blouse for photos, questioned about her waist size, asked how many boyfriends she had and whether she would call herself a blonde or a brunette.

Dr. Bell Burnell accepting the Special Breakthrough Prize in 2018

Jocelyn went on to a long and impressive career as a researcher and professor and served as the president of the Royal Astronomical Society. In 2018 she was awarded a special prize for her breakthrough work in discovering pulsars. It came with a 2.3 million pound prize. She donated the entire amount to the Institute of Physics to fund scholarships that would help female, minority and refugee students become physics researchers.

There is a name for what happened to Jocelyn. It is called The Matilda Effect and is named after Matilda Josyln Gage who first brought attention to the issue of women scientists whose work was accredited to men in an 1870 essay she wrote called “Woman as Inventor.”

Poster from Wikipedia explaining The Matilda Effect

Sadly reading the comments section on the documentary in the New York Times, it became clear that while things are beginning to change The Matilda Effect is still alive and well.

Other posts…………

The Matilda Effect

Where Are the Women?

Why People Don’t Trust Scientists


Filed under People

4 responses to “Jocelyn Bell Burnell and the Matilda Effect

  1. Robert Way

    Thank you MaryLou (with the capital L after the y – another great article!) for yet another interesting blog post. This one I find is so significant and so relevant, i wonder if you would permit me to post your blog on my own Facebook timeline for friends to see it.
    Robert Way


  2. The donation of her entire prize money to empower others was very striking to me, it speaks to me of integrity and is so refreshing as it contrasts the use of money to manipulate others, a poison in the world that seems to be gaining in its toxicity. Thanks for sharing!


  3. MaryLou, I should have proofread. An entire comment in one sentence!🤦🏻‍♀️


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