Book Review: Women in Science: 50 Pioneers Who Changed the World.

Thirty years ago, the genre of Brief Biographical Sketches of Female Scientists offered up a sad handful of essentials: Meyer (1955), Yost (1959), Osen (1974), Rossiter (1982), Ogilvie (1986), aaaaand that was pretty much all we had.  Since 1990, however, there has been a wonderful flowering of the genre: McGrayne (1993), Cooney (1996), Henrion (1997), Creese (1998), Warren (1999), Rayner-Canham (2005), Des Jardins (2010), Brown (2012), Ideal and Maharchand (2013), that pesky DeBakcsy (2015), Swaby (2015), and a number more besides.  This is great news for both women’s history and the history of science, but it also means that a newcomer to the field has to offer something significantly more than was required just a few decades ago.

Fortunately, Rachel Ignotofsky’s Women in Science: 50 Pioneers Who Changed the World, which comes out on July 23 from Ten Speed Press, is just such a unique offering.  I have positively despaired for a decade now of ever having a book in this genre to unhesitatingly recommend to people trying to get their Middle Schoolers interested in the role women have historically played in science.  Ignotofsky’s volume is, I think, the very book for the job.

The structure of it is just about perfect for that audience: each scientist is given two pages, one featuring a stylized portrait of the person, surrounded by pertinent factoids, and the other a page of biography.  You might be skeptical about how much really can be said in a page about scientists whose careers sometimes spanned multiple research areas, but Ignotofsky manages the feat quite well.  Generally, about half the content is given over to pure biography, and half to a quick recap of that scientist’s major accomplishments.  At its best (such as in the Goeppert-Mayer feature) these quick romps give you a perfect essence of the science that spurs a curiosity to dig deeper.  And even at its least effective (as in the Emmy Noether section), the brevity and vagueness of the scientific information is quite compensated for by the earnest dash of the biographical material.

Where the book really stands out, however, is in the selection of the scientists.  Sure, there are the Big Ten (Curie, Meitner, Franklin, Lovelace, Anning, Hopper, Hypatia, McClintock, Goodall, Hodgkin), all there, as they always have been and always will be, but the other forty scientists show a delightful variety, both in terms of era and field of research.  The Dead:Alive ratio, which is usually abysmal in collections of this kind, actually stands at a very respectable 37:13 here, and those figures who are still alive and still doing their work are crucially important for middle schoolers to see and be aware of.

For those worried about this 50-scientist roster being in essence a repeat of the 52-scientist roster from Swaby’s Headstrong, I am happy to report that you need not be.  The overlap is actually quite minimal, so reading the one doesn’t doom you to a grinding déjà vu in picking up the other.  Ultimately, no matter what type of science a child might be interested in, they’ll find somebody to look up to in this collection.

In terms of the who and the how, then, Women in Science features smart choice after smart choice, geared towards delivering the most vibrant experience to readers of a certain age.  In terms of the what, i.e. the accuracy of the representations offered, Ignotofsky has to grapple with the age old question of juvenile biography: how much of the truth do you tell?  Your goal is to get these kids excited about people you find fascinating, but unfortunately the kiddos aren’t quite equipped to deal yet with streaks of black in their would-be heroes’ white armor.  So, you leave things out, and push the job of passing on the bad news to more adult-oriented titles.

As a result, you probably don’t mention things like how Rosalyn Yalow routinely carried out her experiments without the informed consent of her human subjects.  I think everybody is basically fine with that.  The treatment of Barbara McClintock, however, is a little harder to accept, as Ignotofsky introduces the book by repeating the misconceptions that riddled Keller’s 1983 biography and that were overwhelmingly corrected in Comfort’s 2001 study.  Do you have to go into incredible detail about how McClintock deceptively rewrote her past and in doing so gravely wounded a number of people who had been nothing but helpful to her during the entire span of her career?  Certainly not, but it’s probably not going to help the cause of women in science education if the first story is one that was largely disproven a decade and a half ago, and further has the danger of casting doubt-by-association on the truly awful and well-documented experiences that an Anning or a Payne-Gaposchkin had to face and overcome.

But these are minor points which will vex the adult reader but pass entirely over the intended audience.  Ignotofsky’s is the first book I’ve seen that combines vibrant visuals, a stellar assortment of scientists across all eras and disciplines, and a gift for communicating real and deep science and history in a format that won’t wear out the attention span of a middle schooler.  If I were Emperor of the World, my first act would be to put a copy in every elementary and middle school.  Until that happens, the least I can do is encourage you to grab a copy to donate to your local library or school – there’s even a pre-order bonus going on right now, so what are you possibly waiting for? Hop to!


Dale DeBakcsy is the writer and illustrator for the bi-weekly Illustrated Women in Science column at MadArtLab. 

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