The face to launch the £50 note

Posted by on November 12, 2018 in Blog, History, News, women scientists, Women's equality issues | 2 comments

So the hunt is on. Who will it be? Whose face will grace the palms of those terrorists, drug lords and tax evaders, the supposed main users of the £50 note, according to one former CEO of a leading bank?  Well, the Bank of England clearly has a different take on this, and has kindly invited nominations from Jill and Joe Public for suggestions as to who should be the face of the new £50 note.

The guidelines propose that the nominated person should:

  • have contributed to the field of science
  • be real – so no fictional characters – (who could forget Boaty McBoatface?)
  • not be alive – Her Maj is the only exception
  • have shaped thought, innovation, leadership or values in the UK
  • inspire people, not divide them

And as this is damesnet, I decided to add a sixth guideline for my personal use: the nominated person should be a woman.  And a very small amount of research has thrown up the following initial suggestions, which I list in alphabetical order, so no preference.

Mary Anning, Plesiosaur/jtweedie 1976/flickr

Mary Anning (1799-1847) overcame a lack of formal education to become the greatest fossil finder of her era, powerfully influencing the new science of palaeontology.

A specimen she discovered jointly with her brother provided the data for the first ever scientific paper about the ichthyosaur. She discovered and drew the first ever complete specimen of a plesiosaur; her discovery of fossilized faeces allowed ancient animal diets to be deduced; and she discovered a fossil fish that bridged sharks and rays. All of this was achieved before her thirtieth birthday.

Her advice guided the work of many of highest-ranking geologists and palaeontologists of her day. Her discoveries formed the basis of the earliest popular portrayal of prehistoric species.

Rosalind Franklin/Silverscreen/flickr

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) earned a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. She studied crystallography and X-ray diffraction, techniques that she applied to DNA fibres. One of her photographs provided key insights into DNA structure. The photo was acquired through 100 hours of X-ray exposure from a machine Franklin herself had refined.

Franklin pioneered the use of X-rays to create images of crystalized solids in analysing complex, unorganized matter, not just single crystals.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) is best known for her work in developing

Dorothy Hodgkin/Owen Massey McKnight/flickr

crystallography of biochemical compounds. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 for determining the complicated structure of vitamin B12. A woman of great intellect and an immense passion for science, she helped advance the x-ray crystallography technique, which was the key to studying and understanding three-dimensional structures of biochemical compounds.

Hodgkin became only the second woman to receive the Order of Merit, the first of which was given to Florence Nightingale.

Ada Lovelace/Adafruit industries/flickr

Ada Lovelace (1818-1852), was known as the ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ and is credited by history as being the first computer programmer ever.   She was the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron and Anne Isabella Milbanke. As a young girl her mathematical talents led her to a long working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, known as ‘the father of computers’, and in particular, his work on the Analytical Engine. Lovelace added her own notes on the engine, which contain what is considered the first computer programme, that is, an algorithm encoded for processing by a machine.

Now these are just four nominations.  Three of these women are already on the shortlist, and Mary Anning has popular support, but nevertheless the dames would love to hear your views on the women listed above, and of course other suggestions you may have, because there are many more highly suitable candidates.

Answers on a postcard please!







  1. Umm… a tricky one. Most of us will never get to see a £50 note but the right choice has to be made. I must admit I rather like the coy looks of Ada Lovelace who does not typify a female scientist in that portrait anyway. Breaks the stereotype of a ‘bluestocking’?
    Many worthy nominations. I’m glad I don’t have the casting vote!

    Another thought provoking article, Barbara. Thanks!

    • I’m glad too, but isn’t it great to be spoiled for choice?
      Dame B

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