Frontiers for Young Minds takes you down on a dive into the depths of the historical scientific archives and introduces you to scientists you may have not heard about, but you definitely should! This time, we tell you the story of a scientist whom fishermen of the past lovingly called, ‘The Lady of the Sea’.
— by Élyse Boudin
Which names come to mind first when you think of famous scientists? Maybe Darwin, Pasteur, Einstein, Hawking, Newton, Watson etc. Now, if you try to find as many famous women scientists’ names you will find that it is much more complicated. You might think of Marie Curie and her work on radioactivity or Jane Goodall and her discoveries on the behavior of chimpanzees. But many other women who were famous in their time have been forgotten. Here, I tell the story of one of these forgotten women: Anita Conti. And I have to thank Estelle Masseret, a researcher in marine ecology, for introducing me to this great, sadly forgotten, Lady.
It is 1899, France, and Anita Conti was just born, she will go on to live 98 years during which she will be a journalist, writer, photographer but also an oceanographer. Here are a few words to discover (or rediscover) Ms Conti, the first woman oceanographer in France!
Anita Conti loved books and she loved the sea. She began her career as a bookbinder at the end of the First World War. In the 1930s, she also started writing for several women’s magazines, however, the subjects of her articles delved into topics which were certainly not typical of women’s magazines pre-Second World War which often published articles on topics like Parisian fashion. Through her articles, Anita told the story of the sea and its riches. She knew of these riches from books but also from her many trips on fishing boats during which she observed, noted and mapped them. Her articles and her work quickly attracted the attention of the OSTPM – Scientific and Technical Office for Maritime Fisheries, now Ifremer – and in 1934 they decided to hire her as a media relations officer.
Finally, Anita could now board fishing vessels with a true scientific mission. She took notes, photographs, made analyses and maps and thus participated in the beginnings of what is now called ‘oceanography’. The observations that she made during the sea campaigns helped facilitate the work of fishermen as they tried to understand the migration of certain fish species, such as cod. These observations also worried Anita and her colleagues as the fish being caught were smaller and much fewer in number than before. These findings were quickly reported to the OSTPM and Anita also proceeded to warn the press so that these findings could be published in various magazines. She was the first woman oceanographer, but she was now also a whistleblower.
At the end of August 1939, Anita returned from a mission at sea and 3 days later, sadly, the Second World War had begun. Now she was not only the first woman oceanographer but also the first woman in the French Navy. As a result, it was necessary to design and make a whole new uniform just for her! Among the many missions she took part in during the outbreak of the war, one which stands out was her involvement on missions aboard mine clearance ships in Dunkirk Then, in 1941, as the cold waters of the English Channel and North Sea became increasingly inaccessible she left on board a fishing boat bound for Africa. There she decided to continue her own work of observing and mapping fishing zones in the warm waters off Guinea and Senegal. For the proceeding 10 years, she worked with local populations to develop fishing and fish conservation techniques in response to the lack of animal protein in their diets.
In 1952, Anita returned to France to take part in a mission aboard the Bois-Rosé, a fishing vessel which was due to spend 6 whole months in the cold waters off Greenland to bring back more than 1000 tons of cod. From this difficult trip, she came back with notes and photographs that enabled her to eventually write her very first book: “Racleurs d’océans”, which was subsequently published in 1953. She went to publish two additional works in 1957 and 1971 combining the accounts of her travels, her observations and her admiration for the work of the sailors. However, these two books also included accounts of her indignation and concern about the plundering of the ocean.
From the 1960s onwards, Anita supported the beginnings of aquaculture in France and helped set up fish and seafood farms with the aim of making fishing and fish production more sustainable for the long-term. She continued her ocean-bound missions until she was 85 years old. Anita Conti, nicknamed the Lady of the Sea, died on the night of 24 December 1997.
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