Author: Rachel Swaby
Type: Non-fiction, essays
Full title: Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World
I read it: December 2016
Rachel Swaby opens her book by telling about her inspiration for it—the obituary of Yvonne Brill. Published in 2013, the article started off listing Brill’s success as a mother and wife, as well as her cooking prowess. Only later did it mention that she was a rocket scientist.
This oversight spurred Swaby to compile a who’s-who of female scientists over the generations. Ordered by subject (Medicine, Biology and the Environment, Genetics and Development, Physics, Earth and Stars, Math and Technology) and then chronological by lifetime within each of those headings, she lays out miniature biographies of each outstanding person. One firm decision was to not include Marie Curie, “the token woman in a deck of cards featuring famous scientists.” (Although Marie’s daughter, Irene Joliot-Curie, gets a slot.)
Some of the recognizable names in the book might be Virginia Apgar, Rachel Carson, Rosalind Franklin, Sally Ride, Hedy Lamarr, and Florence Nightingale. Yet the public still knows so little about these women. For example, apart from Nightingale’s status as the pinnacle of the nursing profession, did you know that she was largely influential in using statistical data to address large-scale public health problems?
From school lunches (Ellen Swallow Richards) to Kevlar (Stephanie Kwolek), in vitro fertilization (Anne McLaren) to protecting workers against harmful chemicals on the job (Alice Hamilton), the book has story after story of eye-opening accomplishments. That part about “changing science and the world” is no stroke of hyperbole. Take Gertrude Belle Elion, who worked on drug treatments for diseases like cancer. She earned the Noble Prize in Medicine in 1988, and a research vice president explained that “In fifty years, Trudy Elion will have done more cumulatively for the human condition than Mother Teresa.” Undoubtedly true, yet I doubt many of us know Elion’s name.
Predictably, it’s also a catalogue of these women having to rise above their stations, push against sexist institutions, and pave their own way so that they can be allowed to handle the test tubes night after night. Several were uninterested in the “trivial annoyances of title, pay, and politics,” such as Emmy Noether, whose work influenced Albert Einstein. Many were inspired by the inherent draw of scientific discovery, as explained by Gerty Radnitz Cory (biochemistry):
As a research worker, the unforgotten moments of my life are those rare ones, which come after years of plodding work, when the veil over nature’s secret seems suddenly to lift and when what was dark and chaotic appears in a clear and beautiful light and pattern.
The stories, quirks, and dramas in the book go on and on, and unfortunately so many new facts can get lost in the shuffle. I spaced out my reading to try not to take in more than one entry at a time, so this book sat for months by my bed, as well as in the bathroom so I could flip through it while the boys took a bath. Fifty-two entries obviously suits itself to one per week, although I hope the content finds other areas of dispersal. For one, I think an email distribution where someone could elect to receive one at a time would be fun. And a few photos of each scientist might help to bring the reader closer to each biography. There is so much inspiration to find in the women themselves as well as in their incredible work.