Sarah Sowton made history in 1915 when, with five other women, she became a member of The Physiological Society. Up until then, only men had been granted membership.
Before her election, Sowton had a diverse scientific career. She had studied the effects of carbon dioxide on muscles of the heart and skeleton at St Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London (now part of Imperial College School of Medicine). She then went on to research the effects of chloroform on spinal reflexes, and published papers in academic journals.
At the beginning of the twentieth century women were still having a difficult time being recognised as serious scientists. The Physiological Society, which was a union for many physiologists like Sowton, didn’t have a rule against female members, but nevertheless none had been elected until 1915. Women were sometimes allowed to attend meetings which would contain live readings or experiments. But one of the central events of the meetings – the dinners that followed them – were only open to the members of the Society, and as such were exclusive only to men.
In 1915, there was a big change. The Society committee passed ‘Rule 36’ – stating that ‘women be eligible for membership of the Society and have the same rights, duties and privileges as men’.
To gain membership, Sowton first had to be proposed by a Society member. Her proposal came from Augustus Waller, the pioneer of the ECG machine. She received 20 signatures in favour of her membership and, on 3rd July 1915, Sowton and five other women were voted in as the first female members of the Society.
By 1928, Sowton was working for the Industrial Fatigue Research Board, and had co-written a book on the study of menstrual cycles and its influences on mental efficiency and general functional activity of the body.
On 3rd July 2015 The Physiological Society is celebrating 100 years of women and diversity within the society.