Dr. March moistened his lips, as he stood on a well-lit stage to address the congregation, gathered in attendance of the 1908 annual oration of Royal Society of Biology.
“Life has found way in this world, by mechanisms we can only speculate. What we now observe, is it’s fascinating struggle to persist. This next discussion opens new perspectives in understanding self-replication, evolution and survival as we know it. It can be described as one of the most exciting discoveries in the field of biology of the twentieth century. To discuss his life’s work and the resulting edifying findings, may I present to you Mr William Stevens.”
The onlookers, all esteemed members of the Royal Society, turned around in the beautifully illuminated hall of the famous Queens University, to look for movement amongst themselves in order to have a glimpse of Mr Stevens. His was a new name, that had caught the attention of the high and mighty of biology, through a new paper discussing sequential hermaphroditism in higher animals, in the reputed Annals of Zoology.
William turned in his seat glancing towards the section of the female academicians, looking for the face of his daughter. As his eyes met her anticipating gaze, he nodded with an acknowledging smile, steadying his breath for the lecture to follow.
The years of his early life, spent in the British colonial estate of Cameroon, had been enriching for William, a man with green fingers. He had taken up the post of tutor in the local English school. He first met his wife, Darla, then a student of biology, in Cameroon when she came to reside with her family which was posted there too. The keen-eyed Darla had captured his heart. What started as a friendship sharing plants and experiments in the garden, soon grew into fondness and admiration.
Theirs was a happy marriage, amongst the wilderness of sub-Sahara African colony. They welcomed a beautiful baby girl whom they named Nettie, who grew up to adore the wilderness just like her parents. William would watch in wonder, as Nettie made her own little discoveries in their garden.
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The serendipitous findings of the study to be published, involved Netties pet frog Fred, a male African tree frog. William had populated the pond in his garden with a few frogs, all male, to avoid a growth in their numbers. One morning Nettie, now sixteen, ran indoors with a jar filled with greenish water from the pond and what looked like small fish.
“What have you got, my dear?”, her mother inquired.
“Looks like spawn, Mother. Look at them, ickle tadpoles! Looks like Freddie is a Frida after all…”
“But that’s impossible!”, her mother cried in surprise.
In the following months, much to William’s amusement, both mother and daughter would spend time bent over the pond, studying it’s amphibian inmates. For years they barricaded the pond to prevent infiltration by other animals and controlled the frog population, making observations. First with an entire male population, then with entire female population. They would also take excursions in the wild observing the native frog population in natural habitat.
They discovered that in a same sex environment the frogs tended to change their gender, a change that aided propagation. Changing of gender was known in certain fishes who naturally changed from male to female after they attained a particular size. But it was yet unknown in higher vertebrate animals, especially as influenced by the environment. Darla saw that this discovery held many implications in study of natural survival techniques.
On returning to England, Darla joined the Somerville College, Oxford, and furthered her research along with Nettie. Nettie took up biology and worked with her mother extensively. While they failed to observe similar instances among the indigenous amphibian population of Great Britain, they had gathered enough material from previous aquatic studies, having greater access to libraries and journals.
Their findings however met a lukewarm response, being rejected for publication more than once and Darla made little progress from her position as a tutor in biology. In another setback, Darla was hit with pneumonia, after Nettie graduated and succumbed to the ailment, leaving a heartbroken William with grieving Nettie. It was his will to bring the work of his wife and daughter, the recognition it deserved. He decided to claim authorship of their research, a strategy that worked immediately.
The pre-oration interview was held a week before the actual oration, within the University premises. For a paper with compelling observations, albeit written by William, who was an unqualified author, this interview held a lot at stake. William had stayed up most nights in the preceding weeks preparing notes, diagrams and the speech.
On the day of the interview he was roused by his daughter Nettie, who was already dressed and had the breakfast laid out on the table. Her involvement in his ambitions was invaluable to say the least. The rejection of this study on three separate occasions by independent scientific journals had hit her harder than it affected him. But he promised her, this time would be different. They had spent months deliberating over the results of their study and its implications.
He gathered his notes spread on the study table and arranged them neatly. With a passing glance towards his wife’s photograph in a silver frame he turned to face his daughter who was waiting with the bow tie in her hands. Their carriage awaited them outdoors.
One the morning of pre-oration interview, Nettie had stood before the mirror a bowtie in her hands. She now realised why her father would have trouble tying it himself. Bowties are a two-person job. She stared at her face with the glued-on moustache and stubble. She ran her hand through her tresses, now cut short. The bisphosphonates she took to induce hoarseness in her voice were now circulating in her system. Her tall frame supported her father’s suit well. She woke up as Nettie Stevens but would attend the interview as William Stevens, a name borrowed from her father to author the papers, she had worked on with her mother.
She read the letter of rejection, previously sent by one of the journals, that she had glued on to the wall beside the mirror.
“Miss Nettie Stevens,
We have read your manuscript in the context of a preliminary assessment for suitability for publication in our journal. However, we find that this work would be better suited for a publication in a journal with more focussed audience. We therefore regret to inform you that your paper has been denied publication in our journal.
Dr. Fitzgerald March.”
Written correspondence under the name William, had worked well in getting their research published, but a personal interview was a mandatory ritual take the study to the prestigious oration of Royal Society of Biology. Her father had insisted that she face interview herself, by whatever means it took to get to the oration. But she was to face the world as her true self in the end. It was a man’s world and Nettie had to man-up to make her way into it.
It was time for the lecture. Nettie stood up, resplendent in her mother’s gown, and walked towards the stage amongst subdued murmurs of consternation. The presenter, Dr. March, in an attempt to explain what he little understood took the microphone once more. “Perhaps we have Mr Stevens’ daughter delivering the lecture on his behalf. I welcome, who I presume to be Miss Stevens.’
Nettie William Stevens climbed on to the stage with a smile and bowed to Dr March and turned to face her spectators. Her eyes fixed on to her father’s she began, “Good evening esteemed members of the Royal Society and kind patrons of the Queens University. I have been, both privileged and obliged, to have my findings published under my father’s name. However, I now feel obliged to return his favour by delivering this lecture as myself, just as he desires. A series of rejected papers made us delve deeper in our research and work on the shortcomings. True to the benefits offered by the changing of gender, as we shall soon discuss, I stand before you, despite the precedence taken by the male members of our species, in a pathologically skewed academic milieu. Now turning to the frogs…”
This is entirely a work of fiction, dedicated to Nettie Stevens, an American geneticist, whose work laid the foundation for discovery of sex chromosomes (XX and XY system). However, she did not live to see due credit given to her work.
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