June 20, 2019
(++++) COUNTING TO 10
10 Women Who Changed Science and the World. By Catherine Whitlock, Ph.D., and Rhodri Evans, Ph.D. Diversion Books. $26.99.
We will know we have reached gender equality when someone writes a book called 10 People Who Changed Science and the World, all 10 of those profiled are women, and nobody finds that surprising or unusual. Needless to say, we are not there yet. So we get books such as 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World, in which the hagiographic biographical sketches are by definition of females and it is their gender that leads to their inclusion. In one sense this is a good thing, drawing attention to contributions that could otherwise be overlooked; in another it is unfortunate, raising the question of whether the accomplishments of these women really deserve the level of praise they receive from Catherine Whitlock and Rhodri Evans, or whether the authors are bending over a bit too far backwards to showcase work that would get less attention had it been done by men.
Certainly some of the women here are household names regardless of their gender: Marie Curie, Rachel Carson of Silent Spring, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Virginia Apgar (creator of the APGAR scale to evaluate the health of newborn babies: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration). The seven other women profiled by Whitlock and Evans are little-known outside their fields of specialization: Gertrude Elion (pharmaceuticals), Dorothy Hodgkin (X-ray crystallography), Henrietta Leavitt (astronomy), Rita Levi-Montalcini (neurobiology), Lisa Meitner (nuclear physics), Elsie Widdowson (nutrition), and Chien-Shiung Wu (experimental physics). It is clear that the work of all these women did indeed change things within their respective fields, and indeed, some of the women won Nobel Prizes (not only Curie but also Elion, Hodgkin and Levi-Montalcini), while other cases brought Nobel nominations (e.g., Leavitt, who died before being nominated and was therefore ineligible, since the prizes are not awarded posthumously). It is also clear that the women faced barriers not only because of their gender but also because of the times in which they lived: Levi-Montalcini, for instance, lost her job when Italy’s Fascists cracked down on the nation’s Jewish population, and she barely avoided deportation to a concentration camp.
What Whitlock and Evans emphasize, however, is not so much the barriers that these women scientists overcame as their accomplishments when they did overcome them. That means discussing the support of their families – often their mothers – and the women’s own tenacity in pursuit of their goals even when, for example, finances were a significant deterrent to progress (as was the case for Apgar and Elion during the Depression years).
There is not, however, quite as much humanizing of these women as readers may wish. Hodgkin, for example, was heavily influenced by John Bernal and his “communist Utopian vision,” not so much politically as personally: the authors say she had “fallen for his magnetic personality.” But then they become rather coy: “Dorothy conducted their relationship in her characteristically unobtrusive fashion... The relationship was not to last, but they did remain friends and in close personal and professional contact for the rest of their lives.” A bit more personal detail, stopping short of titillation, would have been welcome in matters like this.
There is also some awkwardness in the style and organization of the book. In the chapter on Apgar, for example, the authors write, “One of her mentors and good friend, Dr. L. Stanley James, described her as ‘a student until the day she died.’” Then, on the next page, they write, “One of her colleagues, Dr. Stanley James, later said, ‘Virginia was not just a doctor. She was also an educator.” There is no indication that this is the same Dr. James or that the second quotation comes with a second reference to the person quoted: it reads like a first reference. Something similar occurs later in the chapter, this time within a single paragraph: “…Dr. Joseph Butterfield at the Children’s Hospital in Denver suggested an acronym using Virginia’s surname…” is followed just a few lines later by, “Dr. Joseph Butterfield published this acronym…” This sort of writing is awkward at best and can be off-putting and confusing. It sometimes seems as if Whitlock and Evans are so determined to show the gravitas of the women they profile that they hold back from over-personalizing the stories for fear of trivializing them. Certainly the authors dwell at far more length on the scientific findings of their subjects than on the subjects themselves – with the result that 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World is rather dry reading, both as biography and as popular science.
Despite its stylistic shortcomings, though, this is a valuable book not only for redressing the gender imbalance that is still thought to pervade science itself and the books about it, but also for providing readers with information on a number of notable scientific accomplishments, in a wide variety of fields, that happen to be attributable to women. Certainly these are not the only women that the authors could have chosen to include – in fact, the dust jacket’s back-cover listing of the people profiled omits Carson and instead mentions astrophysicist Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, who would indeed have been worthy to discuss (she proposed in 1925 that stars were composed mainly of hydrogen and helium, long before that was proven), but who was apparently dropped at some point in favor of Carson.
Still, it is worth pointing out that many men who contributed in important ways to science are as little-known as are most of these women – the focus tends to be on a relatively few “big names.” And petty jealousies and attention-seeking affect men’s competitiveness with other men in much the same way that they affect men’s handling of collaborations with women. There is certainly no question that there is injustice aplenty in the lack of recognition of some of the women profiled in 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World. For example, Otto Hahn, with whom Meitner worked, “couldn’t admit he’d been in contact with a ‘non-Aryan’” and therefore “took her groundbreaking insight and ran with it, publishing the discovery in January 1939” – understandable under the Nazi regime – but then, “long after the war had ended, Otto Hahn would continue to exclude her from his version of events,” and clearly that was a matter of professional jealousy or resulted from some other, equally unpleasant and invalid motive. But would Hahn have similarly excluded a male “non-Aryan” who helped him? There is no way to know, and it is important not to assume that male scientists who treated female colleagues badly would have treated comparable male colleagues well. Still, at this time we remain in “redress the balance” mode when it comes to giving women credit where credit is due: we remain far from any Utopian vision of gender equality. And as one entry among the many designed to show how much remarkable science some remarkable women have done, 10 Women Who Changed Science and the World is a worthy and worthwhile study.