‘I wanted to create a liberating new form of pregnancy. A genuine equality.’
Extract from The Growing Season
By Helen Sedgwick
Published by Harvill Secker
5 Jan 2016 23:15
Back then you see, when I returned to work, I was still one of the only women in the faculty. Down in the basement, where the physics labs were housed, I was studying early-stage cell development with microfluidic delivery. But King’s was an old university, theology its biggest department, and upstairs the seminary dominated.
I felt like I was being followed by those men in their cassocks and collars who paced silently across the stone courtyard. And watched. Haunted by the sound of the hymns that resonated through the labs below. When you feel you’re being judged, you imagine that same judgement is coming from everywhere. Though there was another type of haunting there, too – Rosalind died the same week my daughter was born. I was grieving for my friend, while my colleagues were still taking credit for her work. To remember how they used to make fun of her behind her back! It made me more angry than ever. I knew that if I gave them the slightest cause, they would push me out. They didn’t want me there. They were waiting for me to get something wrong, and so I couldn’t.
My work had to be perfect.
Still, in some ways King’s was progressive, for its time – in Princeton women weren’t even allowed to step foot in the physics department. Being patronised was the price we paid for walking through the door. Not that we were allowed in the staff common room. That was the backdrop, you see. That was the world I’d worked so hard to gain access too. It made me different, I think. Different from whom I would otherwise have been. All the time I had to feign a sort of steely confidence, of arrogance, if I were to get any of them to listen to me. And I had to make them listen. I felt like I was on a mission, I was so certain that I knew what had to be done.
Unusually for King’s at that point I was more interested in whole cells than in DNA – living cell research was how I wanted to study human reproduction, and I needed the engineering capability as well as the biology to sustain them. I worked with microscopes rather than X-rays, manufactured carefully designed substrates to keep my cells alive rather than wire hooks to hang and stretch molecules from. It wasn’t until after I’d built my first living cell chamber that I heard Haldane speak at the Royal Society.
He sounded smooth and assured as he talked about genetics and biostatistics, wearing a deep navy blazer with distinctive white stripes and that full moustache – it was almost a surprise he wasn’t holding a pipe. He was something of a celebrity already, being such close friends with Aldous Huxley, but it took me a moment to realise what he meant when he started going on about ectogenesis. I hadn’t read Brave New World at the time – for the best, I’d say. So as he talked about external wombs and selective breeding and child production rates I thought to myself, no, no, no, that’s all wrong – that’s such a man’s way of seeing a woman’s world. It’s never going to be about mass production in all the symmetrical sterility of a laboratory. Human beings, if nothing else, need to feel like individuals. Don’t you see? Any change must allow for individuals to remain an intrinsic part of their own reproduction, or it will fail. I wanted to create a liberating new form of pregnancy. A genuine equality. A more reliable bond between parent and child. In that moment, I realised that my work was intensely personal. That was why I was the one who would succeed.
The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick is out now published by Harvill Secker priced £12.99.
‘I still often ask myself why I was chosen to survive. Twenty-three souls of my family perished.’