A real-life story of a forgotten (female) science pioneer!

I heard the most incredible story from one of my science club children this week (we’re connecting virtually during these times of school closures) about his Great Grandmother.

We have been wearing our lab coats in science club to protect us when we do experiments and Z wanted to tell me that his Great Grandma, Dr Elizabeth Dowsett (known as Dr Betty Dowsett), actually invented a much better lab coat for preventing cross contamination in the lab!

It’s called the Dowsett-Heggie lab coat – although I know it as the Howie labcoat, named after a 1978 report commissioned by the UK Department of Health and Social Security to set out standard clinical laboratory practices, chaired by Howie. Nicknamed the “Howie-Style” coat to indicate its compliance with the provisions of this report, it has wrap over closings, elasticated wrists and a mandarin collar1. I wore this style of lab coat for microbiology practicals when I was at University.

However, Z told me that his Great Grandmother was annoyed at how many male doctors were cross contaminating the samples with their ties and their sleeves touching everything, so she designed a lab coat with slimmed sleeves, elasticated wrists, and a closed neck with poppers for easier access (and quicker removal) than buttons. It also had a pocket for pens. Apparently, she invented it by herself (in 19722) but asked her male colleague, James Heggie, if she could add his name to it as she feared it might not have been published in the medical journals of the time. He reluctantly agreed, although he had nothing to do with the design at all. 

The family knew nothing of this until she died a few years ago and at a memorial for her run by her patient groups (she was a leading researcher of the causes of ME or Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), a member of the Heggie family was there and told them this amazing story about the lab coat.

Dr Xand van Tulleken (Operation Ouch) even tweeted about supporting all the hidden women of science and recognising their achievements after wearing one of Dr Dowsett’s lab coats on TV! 


1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_coat

2 https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(72)90988-9/fulltext

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