A British astrophysicist who made one of the most significant scientific discoveries of the 20th century but was overlooked by the Nobel prize committee has joined the male-dominated portrait collection of the Royal Society.
Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell was a 24-year-old graduate student when in 1967 she discovered a new type of star later called a pulsar. It was a sensational find, recognised with the Nobel prize for physics in 1974 that went not to her, but to her male PhD supervisor.
She has since been a trailblazing promoter for women and the marginalised in science and was the first woman to be president of the Institute of Physics.
On Saturday she became one of the few female scientists to be celebrated with a portrait on the walls of the Royal Society’s Carlton House Terrace headquarters in central London, taking a spot currently occupied by the naturalist Joseph Banks.
“I’m sure that will upset a few fellows,” she said, chuckling, when told by the Guardian of her position at the top of the grand staircase. “It is really prominent I must say, I’m surprised at that.”
The Royal Society has about 200 portraits of scientists in its core collection, started in the 17th century. Only a handful are women.
“They only admitted women 75 years ago so it’s perhaps not surprising that there aren’t many female fellows represented,” said Bell Burnell. “But it does need to be put right.
“I think they’ve commissioned about four or five portraits of female fellows [in recent years], so as long as they don’t stop there and think ‘right, we’ve done it’ and we have to wait another 75 years.”
The portrait by Stephen Shankland shows Bell Burnell at the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, in front of a 36in Grubb-Parsons reflecting telescope, the largest of its kind in the 1930s.
It was unveiled to mark the date 53 years ago that she discovered a new type of star while still a student at Cambridge.
Bell Burnell has always been good-spirited about the Nobel prize going to a man. She said the Nobel committee rarely involved students in awards.
“It does occasionally so it is not a complete taboo but it’s not common. Inevitably, the senior males are much more visible than a female graduate student so you can understand what was happening.
“My colleagues, I think, were a bit more upset than I was … they labelled it the no-belle prize.”
There was some compensation in 2018 when she received the $3m (£2.3m) Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics for her work on pulsars and a lifetime of inspiring leadership in the scientific community. She gave the money to the Institute of Physics to fund PhD studentships for people underrepresented in physics.
Bell Burnell has experienced sexism in her career, she said. “It has been pretty bad, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s. It was very unusual for a woman to have even a career at that point. That was the time that if you went to the doctor with any ailment he would say, ‘It will be perfectly all right when you have a baby dear’.”
Until 1945 the Royal Society’s art collection only contained one woman – a bust of the Scottish scientist Mary Somerville.
Keith Moore, the head of art at the Royal Society, said: “We are very excited that Dame Jocelyn’s portrait will take its rightful place beside those of the most distinguished scientists of all time. She is a true role model, much to be admired both in person or in pigment.”