Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science—and the World by Rachel Swaby
Date read: 09-25 April 2015
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Paperback, xiv, 273 pages
Published 2015 by Broadway Books
Source: Deschutes Public Library (509.2 SWABY RACHEL)
I found this book on one of the new nonfiction shelves (Biography?) at Deschutes Public Library.
[Sorry for the crap review. All of these women deserve better. Life is kicking my ass lately. There it is. I said it. Deal. I’m still trying to. Besides, here’s a review after I said I was done for now.]
The book opens with a four-page introduction, then the 52 profiles (~3-5 pages each), followed by acknowledgments, notes, bibliography and index. The 52 profiles are divided into seven major areas: Medicine, Biology and the Environment, Genetics and Development, Physics, Earth and Stars, Math and Technology, and Invention.
A few of my favorites are as follows:
Gerty Radnitz Cori (1896-1957) Biochemistry – Czech
Amazing woman! She and her research partner/husband Carl provided a firm foundation “of the course of the catalytic conversion of glycogen for which they received a Nobel Prize in Medicine.” They did so much more. Much of it truly foundational work.
Elsie Widdowson (1906-2000) Nutrition – British
“Therefore when Elsie proposed the idea of extending their analysis to cereals, dairy and miscellaneous items such as drinks, so as to produce a practical set of tables showing the composition of British foods, Robert McCance took no time at all in agreeing and in 1934 The chemical composition of foods was born, with the first edition being published in 1940. This is now in its sixth edition and is regarded as the foremost nutrition publication and is the basis of most nutritional databases around the world.“
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994) Biochemistry – British
Nobel Prize in Chemistry for “her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances.”
Biology and the Environment
Mary Anning (1799-1847) Paleontology – British
I absolutely adored the opening sentence! “Before she was struck by lightning, Mary Anning was a dull child.” It continues, “But after she was lifted from the grisly scene and sponged off (her babysitter and two friends dead and a horse-riding event ruined), the baby had changed” (54). It just gets better from there. I mean, Dickens wrote about her! (18 years after she died. [Or not.])
What a story. Her and her brother discovered “the world’s first ichthyosaur fossil” (55). I’m not going to forget Mary. Class is a bitch! Class and gender …
“In 1811, she saw some bones sticking out of a cliff; and, hammer in hand, she traced the position of the whole creature, and then hired men to dig out for her the lias block in which it was embedded. Thus was brought to light the first Ichthyosaurus (fish-lizard), a monster some thirty feet long, with jaws nearly a fathom in length, and huge saucer eyes, some of which have been found so perfect, that the petrified lenses (the sclerotica, of which it had thirteen coats) have been split off and used as magnifiers. People then called it a crocodile. Mr. Henley, the lord of the manor, bought it of the enterprising young girl for twenty three pounds. It is now in the British Museum.” She was 12 years old FFS!
Ellen Swallow Richards (1842-1911) Chemistry – American
So many important contributions! 1st woman admitted to MIT. Her biography at MIT Archives.
Genetics and Development
Nettie Stevens (1861-1912) Genetics – American
The real discoverer of sex determination. Died “of breast cancer eleven years after her career began” (85). Wikipedia entry. Article at Nature.
Earth and Stars
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) Astronomy – American
“Maria Mitchell worked as a librarian by day, but it was her other office—a makeshift observatory on the roof of her parents’ home in Nantucket, Massachusetts—that was her favorite workspace,” is how this entry begins (155). How can I not like that?
My first thought was, “What kind of librarian?
“As a young woman, Mitchell worked briefly as a schoolteacher, then as a librarian at the Nantucket Atheneum, while still continuing her astronomical observations. Her father encouraged her, and through him, Mitchell was fortunate to be able to meet some of the country’s most prominent scientists, though generally as a young woman she was shy and avoided company.“
“Maria Mitchell, the first female professional astronomer in the United States, became instantly famous in October 1847, when she was the first to discover and chart the orbit of a new comet, which became known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet.”“
Math and Technology
Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) Statistics – British
Most of these women I had never heard of, but I have heard of a dozen or so and had some idea of why they were famous. But then there’s a woman like Florence Nightingale who many think of as the epitome of nursing and while she quite probably was an exemplary nurse, her statistical work “marked the beginning of evidence-based medicine” (187). She also created the first modern nursing curriculum and many other important contributions.
And I left out many amazing women such as Ada Lovelace, Sally Ride, Rachel Carson and others.
Interesting read with a fair few sources. All of the links I used came from the book.
Going to have to find that Dickens’ piece on Mary Anning. [Citation: Dickens, Charles, “Mary Anning, the Fossil Finder.” All the Year Round, July 22, 1865.] And here it is!