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Oh! Women in science...

Sir Richard Timothy Hunt is regarded one of the top line British scientists – a biochemist and molecular physiologist, of a class in himself, awarded with the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Paul Nurse and Leland H. Hartwell for their discoveries of protein molecules – the cyclins which are responsible for a mechanism proved to be of general importance for cell cycle control.

Hunt was born on 19 February 1943 in Neston, being only fourteen, he moved to Magdalen College School, Oxford, where the science prizes now bear his name, becoming even more interested in science and studying subjects such as chemistry and zoology. His scientific career skyrocketed from that time.

Professors: Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Timothy Hunt

In addition to profound scientific contributions, Hunt has been a lifelong advocate for scientific research. After winning the Nobel Prize, he spent much of his time traveling the world, talking to both popular and specialist audiences. In these talks he offered his characteristic perspective on inquiry, which emphasizes the importance of having fun and being lucky. He also believed that science benefits when power is given to young people. 

His Waterloo came in June, 2015. At the finale of the conference when the atmosphere was laid back Professor Timothy Hunt uttered two lines that cost him a career. On being asked on commenting the work environment and working with women scientists in his British Lab he said: "Let me tell you about my trouble with girls… three things happen when they are in the lab… You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you and when you criticize them, they cry."

The next few days were the days to remember. Hunt may have meant to be humorous, but his words were not taken as a joke. One or two began tweeting what he had said and within a few hours he had become the focus of a particularly vicious social media campaign. Hunt was described on Twitter as "a clueless, sexist jerk"; "a misogynist, dude scientist"; while one tweet demanded that the Royal Society "kick him out". In a week’s Time Hunt was flooded with thousands of emails, text messages expressing sheer outrage which took global proportions. 

The controversy quickly resulted in Hunt’s resignation from several key research and policy positions, including the European Research Council, and a temporary withdrawal from public life and professional activities.

kobieta z w laboratorium z różowym płynem w szklanym nacz

Derogatory attitudes towards women have been expressed on numerous occasions. In his 1851 essay "On Women", Schopenhauer expressed opposition to what he called "Teutonico-Christian stupidity" of reflexive, unexamined reverence for the female. Schopenhauer wrote "Women are directly fitted for acting as the nurses and teachers of our early childhood by the fact that they are themselves childish, frivolous and short-sighted”. Till this day his misogynist remarks have made him one of the most hated philosophers of all times.

With a hindsight - was Hunt’s comment of that type? – the perverse hatred aimed at females? Certainly not.

Hunt issued a detailed apology in weeks after the unfortunate event. “I am extremely sorry for the remarks made during the recent Women in Science - my attempts at a self-deprecating joke were ill-judged and not in the least bit funny. I am mortified to have upset my hosts, which was the very last thing I intended. I also fully accept that the sentiments as interpreted have no place in modern science and deeply apologise to all those good friends who fear I have undermined their efforts to put these stereotypes behind us”. 

Should he apologise more intensely, should he be punished more extensively or should we all forget it and be of more pardonable nature? Perhaps it is women and particularly women in science who would have to tell.

Piotr Flieger
Department of Foreign Languages
photo 1: Professors: Sir Paul Nurse and Sir Timothy Hunt -
photo 2:

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