NAME CHANGER

In the aftermath of #MeToo, which names in science should be replaced?

Hundreds of academics have come forward with  stories of abuse.
Hundreds of academics have come forward with stories of abuse.
Image: Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters
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The US Board on Geographic Names has changed the name of a glacier in Antarctica from Marchant Glacier to Matataua, reports Earther‘s Maddie Stone.

The new name is a result of the latest string of #MeToo reports in academia. Multiple women have accused geologist David Marchant—for whom the glacier was name, in 1999—of sexual harassment. In February, Boston University placed Marchant on administrative leave. Marchant sdenies the charges and is appealing the university’s decision.

A list compiled by Michigan State University professor Julie Libarkin includes over 700 cases of academics and university administrators accused of sexual misconduct. It’s clear that countless careers have been stalled or ended, yet many of the accused quietly retire, go on paid administrative leave, or even continue their career elsewhere.

The Board of Geographic Names is the latest institution to revoke honors given to scientists who were alleged or found to have a history of sexist or racist behavior. In June, University of California-Irvine announced that it was removing Francisco J. Ayala’s name from its School of Biological Sciences after four women accused the prominent geneticist of sexual harassment, and an internal report concluded that he violated the university’s policies on harassment and discrimination. UCI also announced that it would rename other things on campus bearing Ayala’s name, including science library, fellowships, endowed chairs, and scholar programs.

If other institutions were to follow suit in renaming things that honor problematic scientists, here are some items to start with:

Sims’ speculum and Sims’ position

James Marion Sims, known as the father of modern gynecology, invented several tools and techniques that were foundational to the field. Much of his work was developed by operating on black women he bought as slaves, without anesthesia.

In a 2011 review published in the Journal of Urology, urologists Sara Spettel and Mark Donald White lay out the history behind Sims’ work (pdf) and implore their colleagues to think more critically about public tributes.

Zhejiang University’s James D. Watson Institute of Genome Sciences

Jim Watson and colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won a Nobel Prize for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Much ink has been spilled over how the trio’s female colleague Rosalind Franklin was overlooked for a Nobel and how they may have used Franklin’s data without her knowledge.

Watson also has a long and colorful history of racist, fatphobic, homophobic, ableist, and sexist statements.

Searle Decision

University of California-Berkeley philosopher John Searle, best known for his work on the philosophy of language, has been accused of sexual assault and harassment by at least four women. The most recent accusation was made in 2017 by a former student who says Searle fired her after she refused his advances.

Searle’s name is closely tied to his work on speech acts and his heated 1970s back-and-forth with Jacques Derrida about Searle’s speech-act theory. He has been immortalized in California law as well. Searle was active in local politics and as a landlord, he was displeased with the city of Berkeley’s rules on rent control. He challenged its rent ordinance, leading to a California Supreme Court ruling known as the “Searle decision.”

University of Pittsburgh’s Parran Hall

In June, Pitt’s chancellor Patrick Gallagher released a memo (pdf) to the school’s board of trustees recommending that they rename Parran Hall, named after Thomas Parran, Jr., first dean of its Graduate School of Public Health.

A report (pdf) by the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion cites Parran’s role as US surgeon general during the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study, in which thousands of African-American men with syphilis were left untreated. Parran was also surgeon general during a series of studies in the mid-1940s in which over 1,300 Guatemalan citizens were exposed to syphilis, gonorrhea, and chancroid without their consent. ”Dr. Parran’s role, and the extent of his influence in approving, funding, and providing oversight of the Tuskegee and Guatemalan studies, is not entirely clear,” says the report. “However, because of his role as US Surgeon General during 1936-48, a tenure that overlapped the implementation of both studies, the committee felt that Dr. Parran bears some responsibility for the studies and their consequences.”

Feynman diagram, Feynman-Mac formula, Feynman point, 7495 Feynman asteroid, etc. 

There are so many things named after physicist Richard Feynman that there’s an entire Wikipedia entry for them. While the likes of Freeman Dyson have lauded Feynman for his clever sense of humor, those jokes often came at the expense of women. In his book Sure You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he details his method of picking up women by disrespecting them.

Though he takes a tongue-in-cheek tone in calling bar girls “bitches” or “whore” and asking women to have sex with him instead of ordering them drinks, it’s difficult to read these passages without thinking they must, in some way, reflect Feynman’s attitudes towards women. Additionally, according to Feynman’s FBI file, his ex-wife testified that he was violent and choked her.