Comment: Critical Point Physics World  March 2018

The pioneer princess

Robert P Crease celebrates a woman who transformed how learned societies should be run

Figure of importance Ekaterina Dashkova created new ways to govern scientists. (Dmitry Levitzky, 1784)

Here’s a quiz question. Which was the first country to appoint a woman as director of its national scientific academy?

It wasn’t the US, where the National Academy of Sciences chose its first female member in 1925 and first female president barely two years ago. It wasn’t Britain. The Royal Society didn’t elect a female fellow until 1945 and has never had a female president. Nor France, whose first female full member of its Academy of Sciences was allowed in 1979, and has also never had a female president.

The answer is Russia, where a princess named Ekaterina Dashkova (1743–1810) served as director of the Imperial Academy of Arts and Sciences from 1783 to 1796. Dashkova enhanced the academy’s reputation, balanced its budget, revamped its printing services and earned the admiration of academy members. Even more importantly, her actions pointed the way towards modern science management.

An extraordinary appointment

Dashkova, the daughter of a Russian count named Vorontsov, was born 275 years ago on 28 March 1743 in St Petersburg. Like many Russian nobility, her native tongue was French. At the age of 15 she married Prince Mikhail Dashkov, and learned Russian to communicate with his family. Independent and intellectually gifted, she played some role in the coup d’état of 1762, which turned the Grand Duchess Catherine Alexeyevna into Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia. Dashkova became Catherine’s closest female friend, but the two fell out as Catherine seemed to suspect that Dashkova was a rival. In 1768, after her husband died, Dashkova embarked on a 14-year excursion through Europe, where she met the likes of Voltaire, Benjamin Franklin and Adam Smith.

Shortly after Dashkova returned to St Petersburg in 1782, Catherine drew her aside at a court ball and announced she was appointing her director of the Imperial St Petersburg Academy of Arts and Sciences. Michael Gordin, a historian of Russian science at Princeton University, told me it was a brilliant stroke. “First, it kept Dashkova occupied so that she wasn’t engaged in court intrigue. Second, it helped Catherine that there was another woman in an important position, for female rule was touchy not just in Russia but across Europe. Finally, the Imperial Academy was in trouble.”

Peter the Great had established the academy in 1725 to import European science. Despite a promising start with luminaries such as Leonhard Euler – the greatest mathematician of the era, who was lured to Russia in 1727 – the academy atrophied. Its nominal president was an absentee administrator with court connections, and it was effectively run by the director, Sergei Domashnev, a petty and vindictive poet who had embezzled funds and alienated members. Things were so bad that Euler refused to come to meetings. Catherine jumped at a chance to solve the academy’s bureaucratic headache, and her own, by firing Domashnev and appointing Dashkova the director.

“I was struck dumb with astonishment,” Dashkova wrote in her memoirs. She initially refused, then bowed to Catherine. The next day she ran into Domashnev, who began “mansplaining” to her – as we would now say – how she should behave. She cut him off. That evening she read through academy reports and memorized the names of its officers. The academy was almost bankrupt, with demoralized and poorly paid employees, a badly functioning print shop and few students at its school, which was supposed to train Russia’s future scientists.

Dashkova’s appointment was so extraordinary – before women in Russia even had access to higher education – that officials were unsure whether to administer to her the usual loyalty oath to the empress. But Catherine insisted they treat Dashkova the same as any male.

Dashkova, who was 40 at the time, knew her every slip-up at the academy would become big news, and carefully staged her first meeting. She dropped in on Euler, who was 75 years old, blind and in failing health, but universally adored and respected. She begged him to introduce her on her first visit to the academy. He agreed, and academy members were moved by the warmth and respect shown between the princess and the mathematician.

Using humility and repeated avowals of duty to the empress – and tapping what she had learned from her experiences abroad – Dashkova created for herself the same political space to act that a man would have had. She increased salaries of the academy’s faculty, and integrated them better into the Table of Ranks – a list of formal positions in the government and military.

She made the academy solvent, renovated its printing house and constructed new buildings. The academy’s reputation climbed and school enrolment rose.

Dashkova later founded and became president of another academic institution to deal with matters of the Russian language: the Russian Academy, which she modelled on the Académie Française. She initiated the first comprehensive dictionary of the Russian language, modelled on what Samuel Johnson had done for English in 1755. Dashkova wrote poetry, plays and articles, and edited a journal. Nominated by Franklin, she became a foreign member of the American Philosophical Society.

Dashkova eventually fell out of favour again, after allowing the Imperial Academy to publish a play that Catherine found offensive. She withdrew from active participation in the academy in 1794, and formally stepped down in 1796 after Catherine died.

The critical point

What’s interesting about Dashkova, Gordin told me, is not that she was a glass-ceiling breaker, but that, without explicitly planning to, she personified a new way to govern scientists. When she arrived, the academy was structured as a group of scholars at the whim of the state, paid as a line item in the court budget. Dashkova changed that.

“She did not think that her job was to do research or direct the scientists,” Gordin said. “She carved out a space for them in which they could carry out their work the way they wanted, arranging for resources without intervening in their work.” It was a step towards modern science administration.