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Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives by John S. Croucher

International Day of Women and Girls in Science took place on 11 February, it is timely to recognise the extraordinary achievements of women in a wide range of scientific disciplines. A glimpse into women’s lives that is indeed inspirational. There are common themes across the lives of these women – often an early passion for the subject that became their life’s work, and an abiding curiosity. This hunger to learn, and to solve problems, was essential for scientific pursuit, which requires patience, observation and application, the essence of empirical work, often repeated many, many times to test sometimes fragile, and bold, hypotheses. For every one of the women, we see a story of incredible, persistent, even stubborn, determination and courage.

Agnes Pockels. (Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives, Amberley Publishing)

The example of Italian chemist Agnes Pockels, born in 1862 in Venice, is illustrative. Agnes had a passionate interest in natural science, especially physics, but in her day, women were not allowed to enter universities. Her younger brother was, and he passed on what he could, giving access to his textbooks. Through curiosity and application, Agnes measured the surface tension of water by devising an apparatus known as the ‘slide trough’, a key instrument in the emerging discipline of ‘surface science’. Consider also the story of Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner. With the chemist Otto Hahn, she discovered several new isotopes and, in 1918, while studying radioactivity, they discovered the element ‘protactinium’. In 1926, Lise became the first woman in Germany to assume a post of full professor in physics, at the University of Berlin.

Where British astronomer Caroline Herschell, born in 1750, was credited with discoveries of eight comets and locating a number of new nebulae and star clusters, German astronomer Maria Kirch was not so lucky. On 21 April 1702, Maria discovered the so-called ‘Comet of 1702’, but her husband took the credit for it. It was not until 1710, the year that he died, that he finally admitted the truth, and Maria was then deemed to be the first woman to have discovered a comet.

US geologist Florence Bascom spoke of the motivating force in scientific inquiry, that is seen in the stories of many scientific women, ‘The fascination of any search after truth lies not in the attainment … but in the pursuit, where all the powers of the mind are absorbed in the task. One feels oneself in contact with something that is infinite, and one finds a joy that is beyond expression in ‘sounding the abyss of science’ and the secrets of the infinite mind.’

In honour of all women mathematicians, ‘Women in Mathematics Day’ has been celebrated since 2018 on 12 May, marking the birthday of Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani on 12 May 1977, while ‘Ada Lovelace Day’, on the second Tuesday in October since 2009, has celebrated achievements of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Some have local days in their honour, like ‘Alice Ball Day’, 29 February, in Hawaii; and ‘Katharine Blodgett Day’, 13 June, in Schenectady.

Other ways of honouring the women in this volume include their being selected for stamps and banknotes. Maria Göppert Mayer and Virginia Apgar, both had US postage stamps in their honour; and while biochemist Dorothy Hodgkin was honoured in British postage stamps, astronomer Mary Somerville had a Scottish banknote in her honour.

Rita Levi-Montalcini. (Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives, Amberley Publishing)

The cameos also include a few quotes that may be seen, perhaps, to represent the lived experience of the women included here. A particular issue was how, if at all, to identify their gender and their professional pathways. While engineer Olive Dennis, one of the most remarkable women in US railroad industry history, said that, ‘No matter how successful a business may seem to be, it can gain even greater success if it gives consideration to the woman’s viewpoint’, US engineer Betty Hugle resisted the elision of her professional identity with her gender, stating, ‘I am a woman and an engineer; I am not a woman engineer’, and resented the notion that her gender defined the type of engineer she was.

While gender may have been resisted as a categorisation of the women scientists in this volume, marriage and motherhood had to be managed, somehow. Speaking in 1996, when she was in her early fifties, Jocelyn Bell Burnell spoke about the differences of life experiences for women from those of men, ‘Although we are now much more conscious about equal opportunities I think there are still a number of inbuilt structural disadvantages for women. I am very conscious that having worked part-time, having had a rather disrupted career, my research record is a good deal patchier than any man’s of comparable age … The life experience of a woman is rather different from that of the male.’

Reflecting on the larger driving force in her intellectual quests, Italian neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini, wrote in her autobiography, ‘It is imperfection – not perfection – that is the end result of the program written into that formidably complex engine that is the human brain and of the influences exerted upon us by the environment, and whoever takes care of us during the long years of our physical, psychological and intellectual development.’ In a letter she wrote in 1890, Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya observed that, ‘It seems to me that the poet must see what others do not see, must see more deeply than other people. And the mathematician must do the same.’ 

Woman of Science: 100 inspirational lives outlines the wonderful stories of one hundred such women, spanning five centuries. And for each woman included the cameo is but a short snippet of a rich, lived life, chasing a hunger from their youth in pursuit of answers. This volume is an example of, and an inspiration for, the thousands upon thousands of women in science yet to have their stories.

John S. Croucher's book Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives is available for purchase now.