As a physics graduate student at Harvard University six decades ago, Evelyn Fox Keller endured all manner of sexism that women in science routinely faced, from leering to derisive laughter that greeted her entry into a room.
Such experiences sharpened her focus when she turned her attention to gender bias in the language of science, which influenced both how researchers were perceived and the results of their studies. She proposed a “gender-free science” that dispensed with stereotypes in which men are considered more objective than women, and women are seen as more intuitive and emotional than men.
“The relationship between gender and science is a pressing issue not simply because women have been historically excluded from science,” she wrote in her essay “How Gender Matters.”
“Modern science is constituted around a set of exclusionary oppositions, in which that which is named feminine is excluded, and that which is excluded — be it feeling, subjectivity, or nature – is named female,” she wrote. “Actual human beings are of course never fully bound by stereotypes, and some men and some women — and some scientists — will always go beyond them.”
A professor emerita at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she joined the faculty after being awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant in 1992, Dr. Keller died in Cambridge Sept. 22. She was 87 and her health had been gradually failing, said her son, Jeffrey of Somerville.
Gender bias in science went beyond how women were treated and excluded, Dr. Keller said, and had been pervasive for centuries in the scientific language — how everything was described, from research to the ways cells interact.
“She was an icon,” said Sherry Turkle, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT.
“She sort of invented the field of how science spoke with a masculine voice,” Turkle said. “The very language of science saw nature as something to be subjugated, as you would subjugate a woman.”
Dr. Keller’s “analysis was profound,” Turkle said, “because you realized that the very words that you used to talk about doing an experiment — or learning, or what it meant to understand — was deeply gendered.”
The inspiration for looking at the language of science emerged from a series of lectures Dr. Keller delivered in the mid-1970s at the University of Maryland about her work in mathematical biology.
“I’d been reflecting a lot about women and science, and suddenly it seemed unthinkable to give six talks about my work without mentioning the fact that I was a woman,” she told the Globe in 1985.
“After reviewing the many barriers women entering science must encounter, I concluded that the most important was the pervasive belief in the intrinsic masculinity of scientific thought,” she said. “I asked: ‘What is that doing there? I mean, we’re supposed to be scientists, and this is clearly extra-scientific. Where did it come from, and what are its consequences for scientific thought? It was a very exciting, very liberating moment for me to give that talk.”
The youngest of three siblings, Evelyn Fox was born on March 20, 1936, in the Jackson Heights neighborhood of Queens, N.Y., and grew up in the borough’s Woodside neighborhood.
Her parents, Albert Fox and Rachel Paperny Fox, were Jewish immigrants from Russia. Albert ran a deli near Radio City Music Hall.
“We came from a rather poor, working-class family,” Dr. Keller told the journal Method Quarterly.
Academically gifted, all three siblings became university professors. Maurice Fox, who formerly led MIT’s biology department, died in 2020. Frances Fox Piven of New York City is a distinguished professor emerita at the City University of New York and a well-known progressive political scientist.
Evelyn Fox attended Queens College before transferring to Brandeis University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1957. She also received a master’s from Radcliffe College in 1959 and a doctorate in physics from Harvard in 1963.
As an academic, “I fell in love with the life of the mind,” she wrote in “The Anomaly of a Woman in Physics,” an essay published in “Working It Out,” a 1977 collection written by women about their work in the arts and sciences. “I also fell in love, I might add, with the image of myself striving and succeeding in an area where women had rarely ventured.”
But her graduate school experience was “a difficult one to tell,” she wrote. “It is difficult in part because it is a story of behavior so crude and so extreme as to seem implausible.”
After graduating with a doctorate, she went on to be an instructor, lecturer, visiting professor, or professor at places including New York University, Cornell University Medical College, the University of Maryland, the State University of New York at Purchase, MIT, Northeastern University, and the University of California at Berkeley.
Dr. Keller’s marriage to mathematician Joseph Bishop Keller ended in divorce. He died in 2016.
She only returned from California to Cambridge when MIT offered her tenure, her son said, and that didn’t happen until she was awarded the MacArthur Foundation genius grant. “That timing,” Jeffrey said, “isn’t coincidental.”
In her many career roles — as a physicist, mathematical biologist, a philosopher, and a historian of science — Dr. Keller “had a knack for asking interesting questions, especially questions that nobody else thought to ask,” her son said.
“My mom also had great capacity for love and expressed it in many ways to a large group of friends and her extended family,” said Dr. Keller’s daughter, Sarah of Billings, Mont.
“She cared very much about family and cared very much about telling her family story,” Sarah said, and that included Dr. Keller speaking candidly about growing up poor, and her father’s ability “to communicate a passion for making the world a better place through education.”
The family will hold a private memorial gathering for Dr. Keller, who in addition to her daughter, son, and sister leaves two granddaughters.
Dr. Keller’s many books included “Reflections on Gender and Science” (1985), “Making Sense of My Life in Science: A Memoir” (2023), and “A Feeling for the Organism,” a biography of the Nobel Prize-winning American geneticist Barbara McClintock.
Along with her extensive professional accomplishments, Dr. Keller “was a great friend and somebody who was committed to people in her life,” Turkle said.
“Her loss is very significant for so many of us,” Turkle said. “There are very few people who don’t just make an intellectual contribution, but really change the way we think about a field. She was that kind of thinker. Even people who disagreed with her said, ‘Wow, I never thought of things that way. I see it.’ "
In a 1986 Globe interview, Dr. Keller explained that she was “not saying that women will do a different kind of science. I am saying when there are more women in science, everybody will be free to do a different kind of science.”
“I want to create the conditions for a wider diversity of science,” she said. “I think it will be good for everybody. Scientists should be out there doing what they do best under the conditions of least constraint.”
The result of those efforts, she told the Globe the previous year, “might be both better science and a happier world.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.