Scientific Love

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that scientists usually marry other scientists. Not always, but usually. There are numerous reasons for this: a shared language (science can be a language unto itself), proximity (if you work long hours, it’s hard to meet people outside of work), and the simple fact that for a scientist, your relationship with your science is often just as important as your relationship with your spouse. Science can be a harsh mistress and it helps if your spouse understands and accepts that from the beginning.

This marriage dilemma isn’t a problem unique to modern scientists. I’ve been studying the life of Ramon y Cajal for the science novella I just completed and lucky for me, he wrote several books on his life and on being a scientist.

In his advice to a young investigator, he has an entire chapter on the selection of a wife. His advice boils down to two key points: find a scientist wife, if you can (which was difficult in the late 1800s), and if you can’t, find a wife who won’t distract you from your work.

Lest you think Ramon y Cajal is the stereotypical cold fish scientist, here is a wonderfully funny passage from his autobiography on kissing:

I recognized that a kiss leaves a good deal to be desired as a reagent of love, and especially in the case of unexpected and purely epidermal kisses, impressed upon the cheeks. In this connection I recall the ingenious anatomical classification given by a certain French medical men, who valued the sentimental worth of the kiss according to the following scale: cutaneo-cutaneous kisses, mucoso-cutaneous kisses, and mucoso-mucosal kisses. I did not consider it prudent to commence with number three of the scale, but with number one. Nevertheless, I carried out the test with unspeakable bashfulness and timidity, naturally, since it was the first kiss that I had ever given to a woman, despite the fact that I was over twenty-four years old.

I love the winking tone of this bit, the classification of the kisses, “reagent of love”–it’s making me smile right now. The object of his affection was actually horrified by his attempt at number one on the scale and he broke off their engagement. (And doesn’t the admission that this was his first kiss at twenty-four make you want to read all the virgin hero romances you can get your hands on?!)

When it came to his own marriage, Ramon y Cajal followed his own advice to the letter. There are vanishingly few direct references to his wife in his autobiography; you have to hunt for any reference to her at all.

In one particular bit, he describes his move from one city to another, going on for two paragraphs about the new lab space he had acquired, and at the end, he mentions in one line that two days after the move, a daughter was born.

His wife is intimately involved in that story, the woman who moved an entire household while only days away from delivering her fourth child, yet she is never directly referenced at all. For Ramon y Cajal, it’s all about his new lab, all about the science.

In a rather chilling bit where he is talking about his marriage, he says:

It is an essential condition for peace and harmony in married life that the wife should accept willingly the ideal of life pursued by the husband.

It’s a common enough sentiment for the time, but still disappointing to see, especially after that amusing bit about the types of kissing.

For Ramon y Cajal, the choice between science and spouse was easy: Science, forever and always.

But what if the choice wasn’t easy? That promises to be the question at the heart of the science novellas I have planned. How do you navigate a relationship where science will always be a third member?

That’s the question that I’m going to force my heroes and heroines to navigate together. (And none of this “the wife must accept the ideals of the husband” business!)

3 responses to “Scientific Love

  1. Is it possible that there’s a rhetorical situation at work here, obscuring his wife and emotions? If he’s writing for other scientists, particularly if his own identity as a scientist is contingent in anyway, maybe he’s overselling the company line to prove his own bona fides. Maybe the audience, purpose, and genre are doing some of the erasure.

    I’ve been at dinner parties with lots of lawyers. They love to trade stories about how awful law school was, how many hours they worked as young associates, etc. Privately I’ve asked, “Was it really that bad?” and they’ll confess they didn’t actually work 80 hours a week, it just felt that way. But in public, they’re all, “You think that was atrocious? This one time…”

    Obviously I don’t have any evidence of this process is at work with Ramon y Cajal, but I do think people’s narratives are always rhetorical constructions and are rarely transparently true.

    And also, that poor woman. That poor poor woman — I have to believe she’d driven by love, you know?

    • Oh, yes, I definitely think a lot of that is at work here. He’s writing for an audience of young (male) scientists and I’m reading it for research for a romance novel. He’s telling the story of how he became the scientist he was, so why mention his wife often in that tale? I’m definitely coming in with a view that’s probably too modern, too romantic, to find satisfaction here.

      And he does speak affectionately of his wife: he praises her for going without a maid so he could have the funds to start his own scientific journal. (I believe they had six children at that point.) We don’t have her views on the ideal husband, so it’s hard to say what she thought of their marriage. Maybe she loved being the wife of a Great Man of Science who left her alone to do as she pleased? In the end, it’s exactly like other marriages: the only people that know what’s truly happening are the two in it.

      But since I’m a writer, I do like being able to wildly speculate on it. 🙂

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