Forgotten women: meet Joan Procter, the amazing dragon doctor

Published on: 01 June 2018 Author: Patricia Valdez

Here's why Patricia Valdez wrote a children's book about an incredible female scientist from 100 years ago, who really loved reptiles.  

As a scientist and author, I’m always on the lookout for inspiring stories of scientific discovery. Whether we realise it or not, we encounter science every day. It’s unavoidable.

But the stories behind the discoveries are not always known or appreciated. Sometimes you might find a clue, and that clue might lead you to an amazing story.

It all began with Komodos

The clue that led me to Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor started with the National Zoo in Washington D.C.

The Zoo’s Komodo dragon, Murphy, is a favorite of my family. A few years ago, I decided to look up some information about the Western world’s discovery of these animals on the tiny Indonesian island of Komodo. At the very bottom of one of the articles, one sentence jumped out at me.

It stated that Joan Beauchamp Procter was the first person to describe Komodo dragons in captivity in the 1920s. Nothing more about her. Of course, my curiosity was piqued for several reasons: first, women barely had the right to vote in the 1920s; second, women scientists were rare at that time; and third, anyone working with Komodo dragons when the world knew little about them had to be interesting!

The woman who tamed dragons

Joan spent her entire life in London, England, so my research started with subscriptions to British newspapers, including The Times. Though her name was unfamiliar to me and others, Joan was well-loved and well-respected by the scientific community when she lived. Newspapers often ran sensational stories of this young woman who tamed dragons.

My research also led me to Joan’s writings (scientific articles and book chapters) and to the archive collection of Girton College in Cambridge, where I found letters, photos, and paintings, all of which revealed Joan as a witty, clever, and sharp woman of her time.

Joan loved reptiles ever since she was a little girl. She followed her passion to a successful career at the National History Museum and the London Zoo, designing the Reptile House which is still in use today. She also dispelled many of the myths surrounding Komodo dragons, even bringing one to children’s tea parties. Joan did all of this, despite suffering from a chronic illness and despite others claiming her work was strange or unfit for a woman.

More "hidden figures" like Joan

Women have always contributed to science, but they were not always given credit for their work or they were somehow forgotten over the years. Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin are wonderful, but there are many more female scientists lost to history. It’s my honor to be able to tell Joan Procter’s story and to introduce her to children (and adults) around the world.

I hope Joan’s story will empower young children to follow their passions no matter what obstacles they might encounter. “Hidden figures” like Joan Procter may have been lost to history, but they are ready to be found. Let’s keep following the clues!

Patricia Valdez is a scientist and author with a PhD in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California, Berkeley. She currently works at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Originally from Texas, Patricia now resides in Maryland with her husband, two children and three cats. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is her first picture book.

Topics: Historical, Blog


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