LGBT History Month

This February it’s LGBT History Month: a month-long celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender history, the history of gay rights and the struggle for equality.

LGBT History Month aims to increase the visibility of LGBT people both past and present, promote awareness of issues affecting the LGBT community and generally improve the welfare of LGBT people, who continue to face discrimination and inequality here in the UK, as well as internationally. It is held in February to coincide with the anniversary of the 2003 abolition of Section 28, a rule that forbade the promotion of homosexuality in the UK education system.

To mark LGBT History Month, we here at FLS take a look at some of the famous figures in the history of science who were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender:

Alan Turing, aged 16

For example, Alan Turing, one of Manchester’s most famous alumni and a world-renowned computer scientist and mathematician, was a gay man. Famed for his work on cracking the Enigma code while working as a codebreaker at Bletchley Park during the Second World War, Turing was prosecuted for committing homosexual acts in 1952, which were then a crime in the UK. Despite his heroic contribution to the Allied war effort, he was found guilty and sentenced to chemical castration, which back then was regarded as a ‘treatment’ for homosexuality. This was a punishment that was sadly given to thousands of others like him at the time. Turing died of an apparent suicide two years after his conviction. Homosexual acts were not made legal in the UK until 1967. Turing was given a posthumous pardon by the Queen in 2013, and his life was recently dramatised on the big screen in ‘The Imitation Game’. A building and an institution at The University of Manchester are both named in his honour.

Possible self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1513

Looking further back, perhaps one of the most famous figures in the history of science (not to mention the arts, mathematics, architecture, literature etc.), Leonardo da Vinci, is thought by many historians to have been homosexual. The Italian polymath made incredible advances in fields such as anatomy and palaeontology, and invented early versions of modern day technologies such as the helicopter and the parachute. He also produced many of the most famous artworks of the Renaissance, such as the Mona Lisa, and The Last Supper. Court records of the time show that da Vinci and several others were charged with the crime of sodomy involving a male prostitute. However, the charges were ultimately dismissed, perhaps due to pressure from the accused parties’ powerful relatives.

Looking to recent history, many prominent scientists and mathematicians have identified as LGBT. These include Nate Silver, the American statistician who correctly predicted the winner of all 50 states during the 2012 US Presidential Election, who identifies as gay. Lynn Conway, a celebrated American engineer and computer scientist, came out as a trans woman in 1999, having undergone gender reassignment during the late 1960s. At the time of her reassignment, it had resulted in her being fired from her job at IBM. Today she is perhaps the most prominent transgender activist from the scientific community.

Lynn conway
Lynn Conway


Tuesday Feature episode 32: Liz Toon

Please explain your research for the general public.

I do a whole bunch of different kinds of research, with most of it focused around issues of women’s health and relationships between patients and doctors. One of the projects that I’ve been working on for a while is a history of breast cancer treatment and experience in 20th century Britain. What I want to know is how has treatment changed in Britain over the course of the last century, but also how has the experience of being treated for breast cancer changed.

In relation to my research, I am working on a newer project on women’s cancer screening and prevention.  Basically the project is about how interventions like cervical smears and the mammograms became expected parts of women’s healthcare. I am looking at how interventions become a way for women to think about the status of their health in their everyday lives; part of this looks at how these types of treatments were built into the National Health Service.

How does this research benefit the general public?

Breast cancer services in the UK are often used as a proxy for the state of Britain’s commitment to women’s healthcare and I want to know how this came to be. The project will also explain why certain practices are organised the way that they are, for example, you get cervical cancer screenings from your GP whereas you get breast cancer screenings through specialised centres and so my research hopes to answer how this happened. I think we all need to know why our healthcare system is set up this way.

The project also allows me to understand how everyday people receive health care; it gives me the ability to understand what it is like for patients who have to go through the current health care system in comparison to patients from earlier in the 20thcentury and how these changes in practices affect the patient.

How did you first get interested in the history of science and medicine?

Well it’s sort of a long path. I started out, like many people in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, really interested in science as a kid. I used to like to read old medical books and old science books. I actually went to University in the US and I wanted to become a research biologist. I loved working in the lab but I was not so good at other elements of research and at the same time I found that what I really cared about was the history of science and medicine. Doing History is great for the curious, because it’s basically reading other people’s mail!

I worked for a while as a technical writer and then I went onto graduate school in history and sociology of science. At that point I decided I actually wanted to look at how it is that everyday people learn about science and medicine.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

I was a big reader as a kid and I loved reading biographies of scientists and I especially loved reading biographies of women scientists; Marie Curie of course, but lots of others too. Like a lot of people of my age group and that are American, the thing that really did it for me was Carl Sagan and Cosmos. I realised later that this was partly because he didn’t really just tell you the scientific information, but he gave you a really good picture of how that information came to be. He made it clear that you have to understand the history to really understand the present and the future and I think he was terrific at that!

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

It’s helped me a lot to work here in Manchester, especially at the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, because CHSTM is internationally known with a really strong sense of cross-discipline collaborations. I have great colleagues and there are a lot of elective and joint projects that we have going on and it’s really good in that sense because as a historian a lot of the work that you do is individual. When you sit in the archives you’re looking at papers on your own but being able to do historical projects whilst working with other people is really special. Manchester has been great!

Manchester has also been really great because there’s a lot of interest all over the University in the human elements of medicine. I have colleagues in Humanities, in Medicine and Human Sciences, and here in Life Sciences, that are not historians, who all want to think about the more human experience side of biomedicine. In fact, we’ve started a new group that’s called the Medical Humanities laboratory and that is bringing together those people from all over the University to look at the relationships between art, history and science.

What do you do outside of work?

Anyone who follows my Twitter Feed will know that I am a very avid knitter and crafter. I probably tweet as much about knitting as I do about history!

Anyone who has come to a CHSTM seminar will have probably seen me knitting during the seminar itself because it really does help me concentrate better. It allows me to get my nervous energy out by knitting a sock whilst I try to think of a question to ask. I also read a lot of mystery novels and, of course, I do a lot of things like travelling and visiting museums.