October is objectively the best month. Forget the scary movies and the crisp fall weather — October is so much more! It’s a time when we highlight hidden figures and unsung heroes in science during events like Hispanic Heritage Month, the Nobel Prize announcement, and Ada Lovelace Day.
October also hosts my birthday! (Okay, maybe this wasn’t as objective as I previously claimed.)
But there’s another observance in October that we celebrate in the United States that has risen to prominence in recent years— one that celebrates the contributions of American workers with disabilities and promotes inclusive employment policies and practices. And that is National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
The theme for 2023 is Advancing Access & Equity, Celebrating 50 Years of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
Discussions around labor and disabilities are as relevant to the sciences as to any other field. Like NBL&A’s Associate Director Allison Rein noted in the May Photos of the Month, “Scientists are not generally thought of as ‘laborers,’ but scientists have been part of the labor movement.” Data suggests that, currently, anywhere from 10-30% of STEM researchers and students identify as having a disability, as noted in Physics Today’s March issue.
For October’s Photos of the Month, join me in learning about physicists with disabilities who have broken barriers in the physical sciences and have made important contributions to science and society.
John Dalton (1766 – 1844)
For our first scientist, I’m taking you back to the 1700s. John Dalton was an English chemist, physicist, and meteorologist best known for introducing the atomic theory into chemistry. You can read MJ’s fascinating “Atomic Theory in Antiquity” blog to learn more about his research as an atomist. Due to Dalton’s own experience with colorblindness, he researched the condition extensively. So much so that in certain languages today, the term “Daltonism” is used to describe red-green dichromacy (Wikipedia).
Gustav Kirchhoff (1824 – 1887)
Gustav Kirchhoff was a 19th century German physicist who contributed to our understanding of electrical circuits, spectroscopy, and the emission of black-body radiation by heated objects. He lived with an unknown disability that limited his mobility, and thus used a wheelchair and crutches as an aid. Our web exhibit on the history of scientific cosmology discusses Kirchhoff’s research and his work with chemist Robert Bunsen throughout the 1850s and 60s.
I learned while researching Kirchhoff that Robert Bunsen, the Bunsen burner’s namesake, also had a disability. He lost one of his eyes while working with an arsenic compound. You can learn more about Bunsen and Kirchoff’s discovery of Cesium in this 2018 APS News article.
Thomas Edison (1847 – 1931)
It is speculated that the American inventor Thomas Edison lost his hearing due to scarlet fever when he was 12. According to the Library of Congress, Edison often told a story that it was due to being lifted up by his ears onto a moving train (LOC). In a 1945 Cosmopolitan article, Edison said, “I have been deaf enough for many years to know the worst, and my deafness has not been a handicap but a help to me” (PBS). Here he is pictured examining equipment with Charles Steinmetz.
Annie Jump Cannon (1863 - 1941)
As mentioned in this March 2020 Photos of the Month, Annie Jump Cannon was an American astronomer best known for her work in observing and classifying stars by their spectral type. Cannon also experienced hearing loss, though the actual time frame and cause of her hearing loss are still debated today. Like Thomas Edison, it is speculated that she lost her hearing due to a bout of scarlet fever. Here, Cannon is shown working with equipment.
John Ambrose Fleming (1894 – 1945)
The physicist behind Fleming’s right-hand rule for generators and Fleming’s left-hand rule for motors was an English electrical engineer named John Ambrose Fleming, who was born with a hearing disability that worsened with age. While under contract with Guglielmo Marconi’s Marconi Company from 1899-1901, Fleming invented the world’s first large radio transmitter. He retired a fellow of the Royal Society and received a Knighthood in 1929.
In this drawing by F.C. Dickinson, Fleming is depicted delivering the Christmas Lecture, "Waves and Ripples in the Air," at the Royal Institution.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
In 1964, trailblazing chemist Dorothy Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, making her the only British woman and scientist to have ever received a Nobel Prize in any of the scientific fields it recognizes. Throughout her life, Hodgkin was affected by rheumatoid arthritis. The Royal Society states, “Despite her worsening arthritis, Dorothy gave her time and expertise generously and enthusiastically, and kept up a demanding global schedule for the rest of her life” (Royal Society). She relied on a family member to support her during her travels and used a wheelchair at conferences to engage with attendees. In this photo, Hodgkin (left) is shown posing outdoors with her son, Luke.
Stephen Hawking (1942 – 2018)
Perhaps one of the most well-known physicists to live with a disability was Stephen Hawking. Hawking was diagnosed with motor neurone disease during his post-graduate years at Cambridge University, and he was given a life expectancy of 2 years. During the 55-year career that would follow, Hawking went on to become one of the most influential theoretical physicists of the modern era. You can learn more about Stephen Hawking in his 2018 Physics Today obituary, where 13 of his colleagues shared remembrances of his life, career, and impact.
Dr. K. Renee Horton
Dr. K. Renee Horton is a Space Launch System Quality Engineer at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility. Dr. Horton is also the second woman to hold the office of President of the National Society of Black Physicists. Like many of the physicists I mention in this article, Dr. Horton lives with hearing loss, which is considered an invisible disability. An invisible disability is defined as “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities” (Invisible Disabilities Association). In 2020, Dr. Horton penned an essay for Physics Today magazine titled, “The disability is there, but I belong,” wherein she details how the challenges of a hidden disability can be compounded by racial and gender bias. She writes,
“Sometimes the hardest thing to navigate is knowing if people have issues with me because I’m Black, because I’m a woman, because I’m a Black woman, because I’m a person with a disability, because they perceive that I have an edge due to my accommodations, or because of a combination of all my intersecting identities—none of which I could change even if I wanted to.” In 2020 I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Horton for a social media Q&A, which you can read on X (Twitter).
Dr. Jochen Guck
Another physicist who is breaking barriers in the physical sciences is the Max Planck Institute’s Dr. Jochen Guck. Dr. Guck has been the director of the Max Planck Institute of the Science of Light and a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society since 2018 (Max Plank Gesellschaft). As mentioned in Physics Today’s “Community heightens attention to accessibility for physicists with disabilities,” Dr. Guck was involved in a car accident at the age of 17 that left him paraplegic. Today, he uses a wheelchair as a mobility aid.
You can watch Dr. Guck’s 2020 Schawlow-Townes Symposium on Photonics, “Feeling with Light,” on YouTube here.
I learned so much while putting this photo gallery together. From theoretical physics to chemistry and engineering to astronomy, it’s clear that physicists with disabilities exist in every field, breaking boundaries, adding to our collective knowledge, and redefining our understanding of the world around us. Happy #NDEAM2023! Have a lovely October.
American Institute of Physics. (2015, December). Ada Lovelace: The First Computer Programmer. Ex Libris Universum. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/photos/photos-of-the-month/december-2015
American Physical Society. (2018, May). May 10, 1860: Discovery of Cesium. This Month in Physics History. https://www.aps.org/publications/apsnews/201805/history.cfm#
Feder, T. (2023, March 1). Community heightens attention to accessibility for physicists with disabilities. Physics Today. https://pubs.aip.org/physicstoday/article/76/3/22/2868068/Community-heightens-attention-to-accessibility-for
Grant, A. (2018, March 14). Stephen Hawking (1942–2018). Physics Today. https://pubs.aip.org/physicstoday/Online/5284/Stephen-Hawking-1942-2018
Guck, Jochen. Startseite - Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. (n.d.). https://www.mpg.de/12357988/science-of-light-guck
Hetherington, N., & McCray, W. P. (n.d.). Spectroscopy and the Birth of Astrophysics. A cosmic journey: A history of scientific cosmology. https://history.aip.org/exhibits/cosmology/tools/tools-spectroscopy.html
Holland, S. (2022, January 24). The AAS Annie Jump Cannon award. Ex Libris Universum. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/ex-libris-universum/aas-annie-jump-cannon-award
Horton, K. R. (2020, October 28). The disability is there, but I belong. Physics Today. https://pubs.aip.org/physicstoday/Online/5363/The-disability-is-there-but-I-belong
Invisible Disabilities® Association. (2023, May 25). What is an invisible disability? https://invisibledisabilities.org/what-is-an-invisible-disability/
Kostova, G. (2022, November 4). How Science Celebrities are Born. Ex Libris Universum. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/ex-libris-universum/how-science-celebrities-are-born
The Library of Congress. (n.d.). Thomas Edison - National Disability Employment Awareness Month. https://www.loc.gov/disability-employment-awareness-month/people/thomas-edison/
Markel, H. (2018, October 22). The medical mystery that helped make Thomas Edison an inventor. PBS News Hour. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/the-medical-mystery-that-helped-make-thomas-edison-an-inventor
Rein, A. (2023, May 1). May Photos of the Month. Ex Libris Universum. https://www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/ex-libris-universum/may-photos-month
The Royal Society. (n.d.). Dorothy Hodgkin FRS. Scientists with disabilities . https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/diversity-in-science/scientists-with-disabilities/dorothy-hodgkin/
Schwarber, A. (2020, August 3). ADA at 30: Scientists urge efforts beyond compliance. Physics Today. https://pubs.aip.org/physicstoday/Online/27605/ADA-at-30-Scientists-urge-efforts-beyond
U.S. Department of Labor. (n.d.-b). National Disability Employment Awareness Month (NDEAM). https://www.dol.gov/agencies/odep/initiatives/ndeam
Wikimedia Foundation. (2001, December 9). Color blindness. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Color_blindness