Not many girls studied Mechanical Drawing in Libby, Montana. Gayla Benefield was the first. She was also one of the first to notice that something wasn’t quite right about the town; people seemed to have trouble breathing, too many middle-aged men seemed to be using oxygen cylinders. Life expectancy turned out to be way below the national average; both of Benefield’s parents died young.
Turns out that Libby had been contaminated by asbestos dust from the local mine that formed the bedrock of its economy. Nearly half the town has been affected by asbestos related cancers. This is an obscene statistic; mesothelioma took my father, a tiny asbestos fibre entering his lungs as a young man, then, thirty years later… Put a human face on Libby’s situation and it’s truly horrific.
Yet, as Margaret Hefferman points out in her TED Talk on the subject, it’s an example of wilful blindness; until Benefield starting asking questions and raising the alarm, the idea that Libby’s air and trees and playgrounds were toxic was… Ignored? Unknown? Suppressed?
Ironically, it’s Ada Lovelace Day, a day on which we celebrate those women in science who were – are – ignored, unknown or suppressed. We might argue that we’re enlightened now, but look at how men dominate media punditry in science (to the extent that an organisation like HerSay is necessary). Look at how even a noted, successful scientist like Richard Dawkins is more than capable of putting his foot in his mouth when it comes to sexism.
I’m not sure if , in the strictest sense, Gayla Benefield counts as a woman in science and technology – she was working as a meter reader when she started to get suspicious about Libby – but there’s something scientific about spotting hidden patterns and connections, in asking questions and following a lead to its conclusion. And, sadly, there’s something of the history of science in vested interests turning a blind eye to evidence presented, even when the consequences of this are fatal.
Gayla Benefield saw those patterns and dared to speak out; despite the everyday sexism afflicting the media and society as a whole, there are thousands of women working in science and technology, trying to unravel the connections between our observations and yes, save lives. Thank you, ADW, for helping us start to look beyond our wilful blindness.