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Resources on Women in STEM (March 2020): Science

by Janet Ochs, Jennifer Parker, and Jeremy Pekarek


It is surely fitting to begin this review of resources on women in science as a whole with the biographical work by journalist Shelley Emling treating Marie Curie and her family legacy. In Marie Curie and Her Daughters: The Private Lives of Science’s First Family, Emling offers personal insight into the family’s extraordinary history. In addition to outlining Marie Curie’s own significant contributions to science, which earned her two Nobel Prize awards, Emling dives deeper into the relationships Curie maintained with her daughters and her influence on their careers, as they all became involved in the sciences. This book provides a multigenerational history of women in science through the interwoven stories of the Curie family’s personal and professional relationships.

In Beyond Curie: Four Women in Physics and Their Remarkable Discoveries, 1903–1963, physicist Scott Calvin recounts the captivating life stories of Maria Mayer, Lise Meitner, Cecilia Payne, and Chien-Shiung Wu. The book also explores gender discrepancies in the Nobel Prize process and pinpoints certain abuses each woman endured, inflicted by members of her own scientific community. At the same time, Calvin highlights their particular scientific achievements, focusing especially on Mayer’s contribution to the nuclear shell model, Meitner’s work on nuclear fission, Wu’s work on the Manhattan Project and uranium enrichment, and notably Payne’s seminal contributions to astronomy, which only after many years led to her being named Harvard’s first female full professor to rise from the ranks, and later its first woman to chair a department (astronomy).

Payne once again is a focal point, along with Williamina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon, Mary Anna Palmer Draper (Henry Draper’s widow), and several others, in science reporter Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars. This book tells the unique story of how a group of Harvard women who were once classified as “assistants” became some of science’s most important astronomers. Highlights of their research include Cannon’s stellar classification system, measurements of stellar distances, and identification of hundreds of stars. An important achievement of the book is to demonstrate these women’s perseverance and resilience, despite the prevailing social expectations and frustrations they faced. 

Magdolna Hargittai also documents how often women in science have faced discouraging challenges in Women Scientists: Reflections, Challenges, and Breaking Boundaries. Hargittai begins by focusing on “husband and wife” teams—the Curie “dynasty,” Gerty and Carl Cori, and ten more—and examines how these shared career scenarios have generated both opportunities and limits for success. She goes on to examine the careers of over sixty women, most of them as subjects of their own chapters, and gives life to their work. Maria Mayer, Jocelyn Burnell, Chien-Shiung Wu, and so many more are highlighted. Hargittai provides insight into the scientific legacies they have left, at the same time reflecting on the challenges presented by a society that often neglected to honor their dedication and intellect.

In Women Pioneers of Medical Research: Biographies of 25 Outstanding Scientists, King-Thom Chung follows the lives of individual women who have made significant contributions specifically to medicine. Chung profiles each woman’s background, covering childhood and education, and delivers exceptional research into each woman’s career. Among the women included are Rosalind Franklin, whose research into the structure of DNA was not truly credited until after her early death; Louise Pearce, noted for her work on “African sleeping sickness” (trypanosomiasis) and syphilis; and Gladys Lounsbury Hobby, an early leader in studying antibiotics. Notable early women physicians such as Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Elizabeth Blackwell, and Lydia Folger Fowler are also presented, and of course one chapter is devoted to Florence Nightingale, “the founder of modern nursing.”

The celebrated Nightingale and her legacy are the singular focus of Lynn McDonald’s Florence Nightingale, Nursing, and Health Care Today, which provides in-depth analysis of Nightingale’s influence on medicine in general. McDonald, who is also editor of the sixteen-volume Collected Works of Florence Nightingale and author of a companion reference biography (Florence Nightingale at First Hand, CH, Nov’10, 48-1512), here investigates Nightingale’s contributions to today’s medical ethics, pediatrics, health care, and nursing while also highlighting particular examples of her writings and key nursing concepts.

During the same period Nightingale was active in England and Europe, physician Mary Walker and nurse Clara Barton bravely assisted the Union army in the US Civil War. Two biographical works illustrate their respective careers. In the first of these,  Dr. Mary Walker: An American Radical, 1832–1919, Sharon Harris recounts  how Walker volunteered for service as a surgeon, became a spy, and was captured. Released during a prisoner exchange, Walker was later awarded the Medal of Honor and became its first female recipient. In Clara Barton’s Civil War: Between Bullet and Hospital, historian Donald Pfanz details Barton’s career during the war, analyzing her experiences on the ground as she maintained several Union hospitals. As shown below, twentieth-century wars also generated unique opportunities for women in many fields of science.

For example, A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War by science historian Patricia Fara tells the fascinating story of how British women, faced with inequality in both society and science, nevertheless conducted important research, using space and time to their advantage. Women filled vacant positions in government laboratories and hospitals as men were sent to war. Fara’s narrative follows several women during this period, including Martha Whiteley, who helped invent tear gas; Helen Gwynne-Vaughan, a botanist; Isabel Emslie Hutton, a mental health expert; et al.

During World War II, similar unique opportunities materialized for women in the US. In The Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II, bestselling author Denise Kiernan follows a group of women who worked on a secret government project to build the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project. Kiernan explores the scientific background to nuclear fission while also narrating the experiences of specific women who lived and worked under the shroud of secrecy in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Some of them did not fully understand the reasons behind their work until after the war. While many of these women came from agricultural backgrounds, they contributed to one of the most interesting scientific projects of the twentieth century.

Katharine Way, a theoretical physicist from North Carolina who also worked in the Clinton Laboratory at Oak Ridge, remaining until her retirement in 1968, is just one of many female scientists documented by Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg in After the War: Women in Physics in the United States. This work follows numerous women who have created a name for themselves in physics, becoming Nobel laureates, gaining positions at major universities, working in government and national laboratories, and contributing to the space industry as well. The authors focus on the strategies these women adopted to maintain their positions when the war ended and their male counterparts returned home, expecting to be rehired. With each chapter following the situation of women in a different working environment, the book is intended to energize young female readers to think about making physics part of their future.

The theme of gender disparity is prominent again in Mary Holmes, Suzanne O’Connell, and Kuheli Dutt’s Women in the Geosciences: Practical, Positive Practices toward Parity, as the authors/editors and other contributors examine the reasons behind male-dominated career paths. The book is divided into sections to emphasize the disparity. The first section presents the statistics on women in the geosciences and asks why the disparity exists. Later sections address strategies and tools to help women succeed in earth sciences despite the statistics. Although the book does highlight some successful women in the field, it focuses more on a methodology for success.

Andrea Barnet, in contrast, focuses specifically on four unique women in Visionary Women: How Rachel Carson, Jane Jacobs, Jane Goodall, and Alice Waters Changed Our World. These four women from very different environmental fields became household words through years of dedicated outreach. Barnet pursues the progressive nature of each woman’s genius, as each one stood by her convictions in controversial times. Carson exposed the harmful effects of DDT and other pesticides; Jacobs explored the effects of urban planning on communities; Goodall devoted her life to studying primates and their relations with humans; and Waters was an organic food activist. Barnet’s book delivers an inspirational model of women in environmental sciences who encourage others to pursue such passions despite a gender imbalance that can create many challenges.

In The Only Woman in the Room: Why Science Is Still an All Boys Club, novelist Eileen Pollack tackles the disparity between men and women in STEM fields directly. A graduate of Yale in physics, she draws on her own experiences during the 1960s and ’70s, as well as interviews with former teachers and fellow students, to show how women are often pressured or redirected to enter other fields of study, while those who continue to pursue their scientific profession are faced with difficult choices and pressure from within the scientific community.

Kathrin Zippel employs anonymized case studies to explore gendered relations in academia (within the US establishment and beyond) and to describe the complexity introduced by international collaboration in her book Women in Global Science: Advancing Academic Careers through International Collaboration. Zippel focuses on global challenges that women face in the sciences and inequalities they may experience along the way. She explores structural differences in academic fields worldwide to promote a more complex understanding of gendered relations.

Knowing Her Place: Positioning Women in Science, by Valarie Bevan and Caroline Gatrell, identifies specific social obstacles or stigmas that women face, which often make pursuing a career in academia difficult. At the same time, the authors analyze disparity in terms of masculine and feminine traits, asking why masculinity can oftentimes produce positive outcomes, while femininity can often be associated with fragility and failure.

While acknowledging that society has enforced well-known obstacles preventing women from pursuing careers in the sciences, Kabba Colley and Binta Colley seek to explain, in their book Resilience and Success: The Professional Journeys of African American Women Scientists, why African American women have faced even greater disparities than others. The authors ask why African American women drop sciences during their high school experiences, analyzing statistics, interview data, geographic data, wages, and racial bias data to tease out what leads minorities away from the sciences in general. The book also includes profiles of prominent successful women such as Mary Eliza Mahoney, the first African American nurse to be professionally trained in the US.

Jeannette Brown focuses less on women today, and instead provides historical narratives for African American women who contributed to science in the past, in African American Women Chemists. Brown structures her book around different types of chemistry workplaces, such as educational institutions and government laboratories. Significant entries include Josephine Silone Yates, a trained chemist and the first African American woman to hold a full professorship in the US; Alice Augusta Ball, who succeeded in developing better treatment options for leprosy; and Sinah Estelle Kelley, who worked in federal laboratories to create mass production of penicillin. Brown makes it a point to tell many of these women’s untold stories in order to highlight individuals who fought the barriers reflecting not only their gender but also their race.

In European Women in Chemistry, edited by Jan Apotheker and Livia Simon Sarkadi, contributing authors provide brief but useful historical portraits of over fifty women in the field. Each chapter is organized around a single individual; the result is that the book reads like a reference source, useful for obtaining quick and accurate factual knowledge on the female chemistry pioneers of Europe. The book includes a comprehensive list of women who have made significant contributions to the discipline, including Julia Lermontova, known as the first woman in the world to earn a degree in chemistry; Gerty Cori, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine (shared with her husband); Katharine Burr Blodgett, the first woman to earn a PhD in physics from Cambridge University; and Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, who earned the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and was recognized worldwide for her  X-ray crystallography techniques

Works Cited