Ruth Hubbard

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Ruth Hubbard Wald, on the beach in Woods Hole, MA
Ruth Hubbard
Born Ruth Hoffmann
(1924-03-03)March 3, 1924
Vienna, Austria
Died September 1, 2016(2016-09-01) (aged 92)
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.
Institutions Harvard University
Alma mater Radcliffe College
Spouse Frank Hubbard (m. 1942–51)
George Wald (m. 1958–97)
Children Elijah Wald
Deborah Hannah Wald

Ruth Hubbard (a.k.a. Ruth Wald, née Hoffmann; March 3, 1924 – September 1, 2016) was a professor of biology at Harvard University, where she was the first woman to hold a tenured professorship position in biology.[1][2]

In 1924, Hubbard was born Ruth Hoffmann in Vienna, Austria[3] and escaped Nazism as a teenager.[4] With her family, she moved to the Boston area and she became a biologist.[1] She graduated from Radcliffe College in 1944, earning an A.B. in biochemical sciences.[4] She was married to Frank Hubbard from 1942 to 1951.[4]

As a research fellow at Harvard in the years after World War II, she worked under George Wald, investigating the biochemistry of retinal and retinol.[5] Wald shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1967 for his discoveries about how the eye works.[6] She received a Ph.D. in biology from Radcliffe in 1950, and in 1952, a Guggenheim fellowship at the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, Denmark.[4]

During her active research career from the 1940s to the 1960s, she made important contributions to the understanding of the biochemistry and photochemistry of vision in vertebrates and invertebrates.[1] In 1967, she and Wald shared the Paul Karrer Medal for their work in this area.[1]

She and Wald married in 1958.[4] Hubbard and Wald became the parents of two children: a son, musician and music historian Elijah Wald, and a daughter, attorney Deborah Wald.[5] She also has two grandchildren.

Summary of scientific contributions[edit]

Hubbard made many important contributions to the visual sciences but her single most important was the fact that visual excitation is initiated by a chemical rearrangement of the visual pigment (rhodopsin) which is called a cis-trans isomerization.[7][8][9][10] She showed that this is the only direct action of light on the visual system.[10][11] She also identified the specific intermediate in the visual cycle (called metarhodopsin2) that leads to downstream effects, that culminate in a light-activated neural signaling to the brain [12][13][14] Hubbard also described the bleaching and resynthesis of the rhodopsin molecule each time a photon is absorbed.[15][16][17][18] She also discovered retinene isomerase (now called RPE65) that converts all-trans retinal (the post-illumination form) back into 11-cis retinal. She also studied the visual pigments in several new species.[19][20][21] Her early work focused on the basic properties of rhodopsin, which is a combination of the chromophore (retinal) and a protein called opsin, which is reutilized in the resynthesis of rhodopsin. Hubbard published at least 31 scientific papers devoted to vision. Like her husband, she remained scientifically active until about 1975, and she made an excellent scientific presentation of her husband's work at a symposium in his honor. George Wald was 18 years older than Hubbard and he died in 1996.

Social commentary and political activity[edit]

In the late 1960s and late 1970s, Hubbard's interests shifted away from research science toward social and political issues. In her book The Politics of Women's Biology, she wrote that she had been a "devout scientist" from 1947 until the late 1960s, but the Vietnam War and the women's liberation movement led her to change her priorities. Also, after being promoted in 1973 from what she called the "typical women's ghetto" of "research associate and lecturer" positions to a tenured faculty position at Harvard, she felt increased freedom to pursue new interests.[22]

She became known as a strong critic of sociobiology. Geneticist Richard Lewontin has said, "No one has been a more influential critic of the biological theory of women's inequality than Ruth Hubbard."[23] In a 2006 essay entitled "Race and Genes," she wrote:

It is beyond comprehension, in this century which has witnessed holocausts of ethnic, racial, and religious extermination in many parts of our planet, perpetrated by peoples of widely different cultural and political affiliations and beliefs, that educated persons—scholars and popularizers alike—can come forward to argue, as though in complete innocence and ignorance of our recent history, that nothing could be more interesting and worthwhile than to sort out the "racial" or "ethnic" components of our thoroughly mongrelized species so as to ascertain the root identity of each and everyone of us. And where to look for that identity if not in our genes?[24]

Commentary on gender and science[edit]

In her essay "Science and Science Criticism," published in 2001 as a chapter of The Gender and Science Reader, Hubbard iterates that she is a scientist and states that "[n]ature is part of history and culture", but not vice versa. She goes on to say that scientists are largely unable to grasp the concept of nature being part of life--- noting how she needed several years to understand the statement. Going into her scientific history, the narrator mentions how she originally never questioned how her efforts fit into society. Narrowing her focus, she exposits that the Vietnam-era women's rights and women's liberation movements helped teach her of the roles of science in society.[25]

She continues forth with the various means of debate for both sides. One notable instance from men is when they revive various old and unfounded biological theories on women to justify the typical subservient positions of the female gender. Hubbard even refers to the means of debate as "breathing new life" into old theories and assumptions. She further exposits the issues revolving around gender equality that were mainly brought to her attention by how she and her colleagues suddenly started getting promoted from their "ghetto" lab positions right into proper titles. She promptly stresses that "[she believes] the subject of women's biology is profoundly political", explaining away the book's title as she does so. Proceeding onward her desire to go beyond "defining [women as a whole] as victims of male power and dominance," and pushes for women everywhere to show independence and individuality while learning to accept and embrace the biology that's continuously used by men to undermine them. To follow up, she goes on to talk about women's health activists re-educating women on the functions of their body and goes on to encourage women to use the re-education to attain great power by eliminating the footholds of male misinformation and misrepresentation of their bodies.[25]

The essay asserts that women scientists must ultimately and paradoxically turn away from the sciences to make their stand against male supremacy as opposed to the many female and feminist poets, novelists, and artists that can illustrate their points clearly and easily. She notes that politics seems to vanish within the sciences, exemplifying this point by noting social classes aren't a specific category listed under US health studies. The point she makes is that social and political realities can be blended or integrated subtly into all mediums. The subtlety of the integration ultimately creates great difficulty in discerning fact from prejudice. In addition, artists, novelists, and poets can compose their works without being victim to review under the funding agencies that makes the use of scientific fact tedious and less effective. The author leads in to surmise that the issues around women's rights must be raised and brought into public focus. After bringing up how science integrates itself into culture, she exemplifies the point by noting the prominence of biological terms in historical terminology and alluringly points out a biologist's tendency to place humanity above all other animals--- not unlike how men view women and their desire for equality. She raises the question of whether or not women can improve the sciences but makes an attempt to bring into attention her belief that women can make an impact. Hubbard closes by saying that scientists never want their work to be forgotten and lost, and that she sides with feminism for political insight and analytic testing on the scientific assumptions about women.[25]

Partial bibliography[edit]


  • Ruth Hubbard and George Wald (1952), Cis-trans Isomers of Vitamin A and Retinene in the Rhodopsin System, The Journal of General Physiology, Vol 36, 269-315
  • Ruth Hubbard, Robert I. Gregerman, and George Wald (1953), Geometrical Isomers of Retinene, The Journal of General Physiology, Vol 36, 415-429
  • Ruth Hubbard and Robert C. C. St. George (1958), The Rhodopsin System of the Squid, The Journal of General Physiology 1958 January 20; 41(3): 501–528.
  • Ruth Hubbard and Allen Kropf (1958), The Action of Light on Rhodopsin, Proceedings National Academy of Sciences U S A. 1958 February; 44(2): 130–139.
  • Ruth Hubbard,Deric Bownds, and Tôru Yoshizawa (1965), The Chemistry of Visual Photoreception, Cold Spring Harbor Symposium on Quantitative Biology 1965. 30:301-315
  • Ruth Hubbard (1988), Science, Facts and Feminism, Hypatia, v. 3, no. 1 (Spring 1988)
  • R. Hubbard and R.C. Lewontin (1996), Pitfalls of Genetic Testing, New England Journal of Medicine, Volume 334:1192-1194, Number 18, 2 May 1996
  • Ruth Hubbard (2006), Race & Genes, in Is Race Real?, a web forum sponsored by the Social Science Research Council, June 7, 2006



  1. ^ a b c d "Ruth Hubbard". Cambridge Forum Speakers 1970-1990. Harvard Square Library. Archived from the original on April 5, 2012. Retrieved November 29, 2009. 
  2. ^ Holloway, M. (1995) Profile: Ruth Hubbard – Turning the Inside Out, Scientific American 272(6), 49-50.
  3. ^ "Hubbard, Ruth, 1924-. Papers of Ruth Hubbard, 1920-2007". President and Fellows of Harvard College. Retrieved 26 January 2015.  External link in |website= (help)
  4. ^ a b c d e "Ruth Hubbard". HowStuffWorks (Discovery Communications). Retrieved January 27, 2011. 
  5. ^ a b John E. Dowling, "George Wald, 1906–1997: A Biographical Memoir" in Biographical Memoirs, Washington, D.C.: The National Academy Press (National Academy of Sciences), Volume 78, 298:317.
  6. ^ "How to Think About Science: Episode 19 - Ruth Hubbard". Canadian Broadcasting Corporation via Public Radio Exchange (PRX). Retrieved January 27, 2011. 
  7. ^ George Wald, Paul K. Brown, Ruth Hubbard, and W. Oroshnik (1956) Proc Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 438-451
  8. ^ Ruth Hubbard, Paul K. Brown, and Allen Kropf (1959) Nature 183: 442-446
  9. ^ Ruth Hubbard and Allen Kropf (1959) Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 75: 388-398
  10. ^ a b Allen Kropf, Paul K. Brown, and Ruth Hubbard (1959)
  11. ^ Ruth Hubbard, Paul K. Brown, and Allen Kropf (1959) Nature 183: 442-446)
  12. ^ Nature 183: 446-450
  13. ^ Robert G. Matthews, Ruth Hubbard, Paul K. Brown and George Wald (1963) J. Gen. Phsyiol. 47: 215-239
  14. ^ B.K. Fung, J.B. Hurley and Lubert Styer (1981) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 78: 152-156.
  15. ^ Ruth Hubbard (1951) Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 37: 69-79
  16. ^ Ruth Hubbard (1956) J. Gen. Physiol. 39: 935-956
  17. ^ Allen Kropf and Ruth Hubbard (1958) Ann. N.Y.Acad.Sci. 74:266-280
  18. ^ Ruth Hubbard (1958) Nature 181: 1126
  19. ^ George Wald and Ruth Hubbard (1957) Nature 180: 278-280
  20. ^ Ruth Hubbard and George Wald Nature 186: 212-215
  21. ^ Linda Sperling and Ruth Hubbard (1975) J. Gen. Physiol. 65: 235-251
  22. ^ Ruth Hubbard (1990), The Politics of Women's Biology, Rutgers University Press. ISBN 0-8135-1490-8, ISBN 978-0-8135-1490-1. pages 1-2.
  23. ^ Ruth Hubbard, Harvard University Department of the History of Science, web content accessed July 27, 2011
  24. ^ Ruth Hubbard (2006), Race & Genes
  25. ^ a b c Ruth Hubbard (2001). "Science and Science Criticism". In Muriel Lederman, Ingrid Bartsch. The Gender and Science Reader. Psychology Press. pp. 49–51. ISBN 9780415213585. 

External links[edit]