Tuesday, 11 March 2014 11:37

The Cell Biologist Who Beat the IRS Stands Out as Wikipedia Edit-a-Thon Includes More Women In Science History

Written by 
Rate this item
(1 Vote)

Matilda BrooksDr. Matilda Moldenhaur Brooks, an early cell
biologist and a woman who stood up to the IRS.
Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives,
Flickr Commons Collection
March is Women's History Month and both the Royal Society in the United Kingdom and the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SI Archives) in the United States scheduled Wikipedia "edit-a-thon" sessions to strengthen the online encyclopedia's inadequate coverage of women in science history. The Royal Society's event was last week but for the Smithsonian's there's still time to sign up and learn how to become a Wiki editor or go along in person to the Women In Science session on Tuesday, March 18, at the SI Archives offices in Washington.

To get things going, the SI Archives just posted 70 new photos from their Women in Science collection on Flickr Commons of women either missing from or with meager entries on Wikipedia, what Wikepedians call "stubs." These scientists were mostly active in the early to mid-20th century. Against the social customs of the day, they grabbed a place for themselves in a wide array of science and engineering fields. The list includes botanists, entomologists, chemists, geologists, paleontologists, anthropologists, aerospace engineers, and astronomers.

Given the ASCB Post's interests, we looked for biologists, hopefully, cell biologists and came upon a picture of Matilda Moldenhaur Brooks whose "stub" on Wikipedia said she lived from 1888 to 1981. (We have since updated her "stub.") Born in Pittsburgh, Moldenhaur Brooks earned her BS and MS at the University of Pittsburgh and her PhD from Harvard in 1920. She is credited with the 1932 discovery that the staining compound methylene blue is an antidote to carbon monoxide and cyanide poisoning. But this is somewhat misleading because a few clicks on the Web make it clear that Brooks was not a clinician or a drug developer but an early experimental cell biologist. She discovered the antidote effect during her investigations on the uptake of methylene blue and other oxidation-reduction agents in experimental tumors.

Brooks published over 100 papers in her career. Her masterwork, written with her husband Sumner Cushing Brooks and published in 1941, was The Permeability of Living Cells. They were a remarkable couple for their day and age. They met in 1916 in Cambridge, MA, where she was working on her PhD in zoology and he'd just finished his in botany. (Sumner's father was president of the Massachusetts Agricultural College and the person credited for introducing the soy bean to America.)

It is a cliché of the age but Sumner and Matilda M. Brooks were the ideal husband-wife scientific team. They worked together for the United States Public Health Service from 1920 to 1927. Every summer, they took their lab work to the Marine Biological Laboratory (MBL) in Woods Hole, MA. In 1927, Sumner Brooks was offered a faculty position in Zoology at the University of California, Berkeley, to teach "physicochemical biology," becoming the first person at Berkeley to teach classroom and lab courses in "experimental cell biology."

Thereafter Matilda M. Brooks was described as being on the "research staff" at Berkeley, where she continued publishing her own papers and collaborating with her husband on the permeability book for 20 years. But her true status at Berkeley emerges from one of the strangest sources in modern scientific history, a decision by the Ninth Circuit, U.S. Court of Appeals in a 1959 federal income tax case. In Matilda M. Brooks, Petitioner, v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, Respondent, we learn that when Sumner Brooks died in 1948, Matilda was left with a lab and some small grants but no salary. When her husband had taken up his faculty post, she had been barred from a paying job by Berkeley's "anti-nepotism policy" and allowed only a non-paying appointment. With her husband's death, Berkeley offered Matilda a stipend of $500 a year. Drawing on personal savings and investments plus small research grants, Matilda M. Brooks continued her career. In 1952 and 1953, she made two scientific trips to Europe, claiming expenses of $2,988 and $3,685, respectively. This was too much for the IRS, which denied the deductions. Brooks lost in Tax Court but insisted on appealing. And she won.

Brooks argued that even though she couldn't hope to earn a living from publishing scientific papers alone, she would profit professionally from European travel by gathering materials and conferring with peers to preserve her academic reputation. "It is difficult in view of mankind's almost universal drive for monetary reward alone to recognize that petitioner was required to spend many thousands of dollars to retain the position paying her but $500 per annum," wrote Justice Stanley M. Barnes. But that was the case here, the court ruled, reversing in favor of Brooks.

Brooks was not a woman to be pushed around. In 1933, she'd published a rocket of a rejoinder in JAMA after a previous paper by a male physician reported successful treatments of cyanide poisoning with methylene blue omitted that fact that Brooks had published her discovery the year before.

In June 1936, Brooks wrote on MBL letterhead to the Board of Trustees of Mt. Holyoke College. "May I add my voice of protest to that of the others against the appointment of a man as head of Mt. Holyoke College? The education of women has progressed a long way from the time when they were allowed to sit out of sight behind curtains to listen to the words of wisdom which proceeded from the mouths of men instructors," she began.

"It seems to me that in this modern age when there are so many able women in this country, educated and trained for leadership among not only women, but also men, that it is a very curious reactionary decision on the part of those in power, to revert to the age-old custom of considering a man as the only one able to head a group of women." Brooks thought the whole sorry business could have been avoided if there had been more women on the Board of Trustees.

A similar result, it is thought, will occur if there are more women in science and more women editing Wikipedia entries about women in science.

John Fleischman

John is ASCB Senior Science Writer and the author among other things of two nonfiction books for older children, "Phineas Gage: A Gruesome But True Story About Brain Science" and "Black & White Airmen," both from Houghton-Mifflin-Harcourt, Boston.

Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.