A lively, readable account of the lives and work of 10 groundbreaking female scientists.
Popular science writers Whitlock (co-author: Meet Your Bacteria, 2018) and Evans (Astrophotography, 2017, etc.) focus on women who were born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and who therefore worked in a scientific environment where women were even more rare than they are now. Among their subjects are those who will be familiar to most readers, such as Marie Curie and environmentalist Rachel Carson, and those who are not household names, including pharmaceutical scientist Gertrude Elion, who won a Nobel Prize for her work on the development of several drugs, and astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, who “discovered a way of ranking stars' magnitudes using photographic plates, which became a standard in the field.” The authors also explore the lives and work of nutritionist Elsie Widdowson, who helped develop the World War II ration diet and the technique of fortifying foods such as bread, and Dorothy Hodgkin, who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for revealing the structure of penicillin and vitamin B12. Rather than whitewashing the sometimes less-than-heroic details of their subjects' lives, Whitlock and Evans treat them as “ordinary women who, often via rather circuitous routes and not without their fair share of mishaps, disasters, and family tragedies, did extraordinary things.” The authors neatly summarize their subjects' lives from cradle to grave and delve into their work and its importance, explaining the details clearly without oversimplifying them. Although it is not always obvious why they have selected these 10 women rather than others, and they seem to almost go out of their way to avoid noting similarities among their subjects, they provide 10 memorable portraits that may contain even a few surprises for scholars of these important pioneers.
A solid introduction for those who know little about the long-term impact of women in science.