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UZH Journal

Remembering a Forgotten Researcher

Tanja Hammel

Translated by Philip Isler

The doctoral thesis of historian Tanja Hammel about Mary Elizabeth Barber (1818–1899), a naturalist who lived in the British Cape Colony in South Africa, takes a fascinating look at the world of research in the 19th century. Barber, who allegedly taught herself to read and write, exchanged letters with well-known scientists such as Charles Darwin and provided corroborative evidence for the hotly debated theory of evolution. As a woman, however, she was marginalized and prevented from becoming a member in most scientific societies. And yet, the scientist was still able to write 16 articles, which were published in scientific journals. Her body of work proves among other things how she was able to use science to advocate for gender equality in settler society. “I was fascinated by her complex character and contradictions,” says Tanja Hammel, who’s a member of the academic staff at UZH. Her doctoral thesis about Barber was lauded for its “elegant narrative”, for which she was awarded a faculty prize at the University of Basel. Her book will be published by Palgrave this summer. (th/sts)

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Tanja Hammel researched the life and work of Mary Elizabeth Barber, the first woman ornithologist in South Africa.

Picture: Frank Brüderli