by Huu Ngoc

In traditional Viet Nam, a very Confucian society, women existed only within the confines of the home and for procreation. They didn’t have the right to study. Over nine centuries of classical Sino-Vietnamese teaching, the only laureate to enter a triennial competition was Nguyen Thi Due, who lived in the seventeenth century under the Mac Dynasty in the northern province of Cao Bang. She disguised herself as a man to pursue a university title. Her ruse was discovered, but the king forgave her and employed her as a lecturer in his harem.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, with the country’s first modernisation under the colonial French regime, girls had the chance to go to school. But they didn’t go far. A minority stopped at a primary school diploma. Rare were the female holders of the baccalaureate, and extremely rare female licentiates and doctors until the end of Second World War. The first female doctor of science, Hoang Thi Nga, graduated from a French university and didn’t emerge until the 1930s.

One should note that science, as knowledge acquired by study, observation and experimentation, made a late appearance, around the 1930s, in Viet Nam. Our Confucian scholars had until then despised it, confusing it with technical applications deemed too materialist, unworthy of the attention of Confucians. However, that spirit has since changed, above all with the establishment of a series of technical schools by the colonial administration to face up to the isolation of Indochina between 1940 and 1945, and with the effort of scientific propagation made by a young generation of Vietnamese intellectuals, certain among them from France.

The Revolution of 1945, which put an end to French colonisation, favoured the development of education and scientific knowledge. In particular, a growing regiment of female scientists began to form. During the war of resistance against the French reconquest (1946-1954), our schools of medicine, pharmacy and agriculture had formed a premier contingent of female specialists, without mentioning those who studied at other branches in the Soviet Union, China, and in other socialist countries. During the American War (1965-1975), this strength was increased significantly, with more and more women in science trained in South Viet Nam and in Western countries. The policy of openness inaugurated by doi moi (renovation) in 1986 favoured an increase of in number of women in science by which the biggest handicap to research is still the traditional attachment to family.

To complete the picture, allow me to cite several important women in science.

Duong Quynh Hoa, recently deceased, was a medical doctor trained in France and was better known for her political activities than for her professional career. Minister of Health for the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Viet Nam, she was an excellent paediatrician. From the several meetings I had with her in the company of our mutual friend, French poetess Francoise Correze, I got from her the image of a female patriot, unyielding in her opinions, energetic and very good-hearted.

Hoang Xuan Sinh is also a scientist. The first foreign female to receive a Doctorate in Mathematics at the Sorbonne, she participated in anti-French activities in occupied Ha Noi. Under the American bombs, she taught in the jungle and prepared for her thesis. Very independent-minded, she created the first non-State-run university in Viet Nam.

Vo Hong Anh, who received a doctorate in science of physics and mathematics in the Soviet Union, received the International Kovalevskaia Prize for women in science. She is the daughter of General Vo Nguyen Giap and of a militant revolutionary, Nguyen Thi Quang Thai, tortured to death by the French colonial administration.

Born in a colonial prison of a revolutionary mother, Vu Thi Phan became a specialist in parasitology. A doctor in the army, she gave up 40 years of her life to fight the malaria that wreaked havoc chiefly during the American war.

Bui Hue Cau, a doctor in chemistry, made an important discovery for the oil industry. Female pharmacist Kim Chi is distinguished by numerous inventions. During the American air war against North Viet Nam, Thieu Hoa won a silver medal at the International Mathematics Competition for secondary school students in Vienna, and later received a doctorate from the Soviet Union. Born of a father who was an anti-French fighter, Nguyen Thi Le, president of the Society of Parasitologists of Viet Nam, discovered a new species of tenia (tapeworm) which came to carry her name. Le Hong Van, mathematician, was the first and only women to win a prize from the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy. The list goes on. — VNS