A book about a scientist in the 1950s hits a couple of my buttons. I am interested in science and I’m interested in history. It’s specifically about the problems for women wanting to get into science in the fifties in America. I got into science in the seventies in the UK, but even so I could recognise the general outline of what the author was getting at. The first lab I worked in in 1978 was staffed by about 30 men and I think 3 women. Two of the women had the most junior posts possible. That seemed normal. The other was my boss, and she was more ferocious and combative then anyone else in the team. I hate to admit this, but at the time this situation seemed entirely normal and I saw nothing remotely to question about it. In fact I don’t think I have given it a thought in the 40 odd years since. That was just how it was. Of course women could go into science. And if you looked for them you’d find them. But most of them didn’t want to, and that was just the way that it was.
Before getting on with the book review, let me drag from my brain the most notable female scientists I can think of. This is off the top of my head, so apologies if I have missed somebody obvious.
Maria the Jewess was the first bench chemist whose name we know. She is famous as the inventor of the bains marie, still widely used by chemists and cooks. She operated in the Eastern Mediterranean, possibly Aleppo, some time before the 400AD. Her name suggests her religion, but nothing else is recorded about her. She is known through references to her by other writers, so at the very least we can say that it wasn’t impossible to make a name as a scientist in the ancient world if you were a woman.
Hypatia – famous in 4th Century Alexandria and beyond as a teacher of mathematics. Hypatia is known for her contributions to mathematics, particularly in the field of geometry. She is credited with writing several important works on mathematics and astronomy, including a commentary on the mathematics of Euclid, which was a standard textbook for students of mathematics at the time.
It has been speculated that she may have investigated the possibility of planets having elliptical orbits 1200 years before Kepler. Her death has been portrayed as a martyrdom of a rational heroine at the hands of religious bigots, notably by Carl Sagan. This may have been the case. But in reality we don’t have enough detail of the background to her death at the hands of a mob of violent monks. It may well have been purely political. But nonetheless she was an example of a female scientist getting significant respect. You don’t kill someone if they aren’t important.
Trotula de Ruggeiro – first person to publish on women’s health, this in the 12th century . Wrote about and practiced medicine in her lifetime, something that no woman did in Britain until 1865. Her contribution was later obscured, until rediscovered in the 17th century. It is hard not to conclude that in this respect, 12th century Italy was about 700 years ahead of its time.
Marie Curie – the only person to have won both physics and chemistry Nobel prizes. She is the only woman buried in the Pantheon. She was also the only woman at the Solvay conference.
Rosalind Franklin – did the practical work for the elucidation of DNA. Her data were stolen by Watson and Crick who used them to determine the structure and get the credit. Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist who made significant contributions to the understanding of the structure of DNA. Franklin’s work on DNA was primarily focused on the use of X-ray crystallography to study the structure of DNA fibers. She was able to produce high-quality X-ray diffraction images of DNA fibers, which revealed important details about the structure of the molecule. These images, particularly one known as Photo 51, were critical to the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick. Franklin’s work on the structure of DNA played a key role in their discovery and was a major contribution to the field of molecular biology.
Rachel Carson – kicked off the environmental movement with her book Silent Spring. She was subject to continual attempts to discredit her. This was vested interests unwilling to foot the bill for the damage done by their innovations. But the criticism was astonishingly sexist. One politician wondered in public ‘why a spinster with no children was so interested in genetics’.
There is something of the treatment of these women in the way the heroine of the book experiences her story arc. Elizabeth Zott is a talented chemist whose career is stymied by the most appalling sexism. She’s not an entirely sympathetic heroine. She is narrow minded and lacks social skills. She is antagonistic and picks fights over relatively trivial issues. This does sound like some scientists of both genders I’ve known – but it is caricature rather than an accurate sketch. The other thing that doesn’t ring true is that she and other characters seem to understand and analyse things in terms of modern day gender politics. I’m just about old enough to remember that this wasn’t how people thought back then. Women’s Lib as feminism was initially called came much later and was initially treated with derision. Oh and the science was covered pretty superficially as well.
I don’t think this book is an accurate portrayal of an era or offers much insight into the very real struggles of women to recognition in science. And it doesn’t offer any particular analysis that would help the still incomplete revolution to fully incorporate the XX chromosome holding half of the human race in the great science project.
But against that the plot cracks along and keeps you engaged. The characters are interesting and are generally treated with humour. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments. I’d give my highest marks to simply the way the words are put down on the page, which makes it a very easy book to read. I don’t think there will be much trouble turning it into a screen play and I read that a TV adaptation is already on the way. I can easily imagine it being a big hit.
In conclusion , I thought the book was great. It was a lighthearted, humorous take on a topic that’s not particularly mainstream. It does shed some light on the struggles of women in science, but that’s not really a good reason to read it. But in a world where not many people read books it is probably more important that it gets the issue onto screens.