There was a time when those of us in the Women In Science (WIS) book-verse considered it a banner year when TWO new major releases featuring a prominent woman scientist were published in a twelve month period. Thankfully, those days are fast vanishing, and we find ourselves in the happy circumstance of having to struggle to keep up with the burgeoning flood of new WIS books hitting the market. The last year has been particularly productive in this regard, so in the interest of building your own WIS collections, here are some highlights of those recent releases:
Radiant: The Dancer, the Scientist, and a Friendship Forged in Light
by Liz Heinecke (Grand Central Publishing 2021)
Heinecke styles this book a work of “creative non-fiction” which is usually a pairing of terms that makes me curl up into a pill-bug-like defensive shell, but this book was, from start to end, an utter delight to read. Heinecke has a natural skill for seamlessly weaving historical detail with sections of dialogue or narration to create a product that is rigorous, engaging, and, most importantly, that has the feeling of truth to it. This is the story of the relationship between Marie Curie, the double Nobel laureate who discovered radium and polonium and coined the term radioactivity, and the American dancer Loie Fuller, whose experimentation with light and color effects worked a revolution in the world of stage lighting and dance. Fuller carried out her own experiments on producing different colors and phosphorescent dyes to use in her world-famous Parisian shows, and was drawn to Curie through tales of the glowing properties of radium.
Radiant conveys the lives of each of these ground-breaking women, and of their interactions over the course of the early Twentieth Century as Curie brought Fuller into the world of scientific research and Fuller showed Curie how science and art could interact to create something wholly new in the world of human creativity. Their mutual curiosity in each other’s unique genius is a wonderful thing to behold as each supports the other through the long and hard decades of their friendship. Through years of personal loss, war, economic hardship, and scandal, each found natural sympathy and support in the other, as both pushed their way forward through pain into discovery. It’s a beautiful story that is beautifully told, and one of the most engaging Women In Science books I’ve read in recent memory.
Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine
by Olivia Campbell (Park Row Books 2021)
Sometimes the thing you think you want isn’t the thing you actually needed.
One of the things that we WISophiles have been anticipating for a long while now is a replacement volume for Ruth Abram’s indispensable 1985 Send Us a Lady Physician: Women Doctors in America 1835-1920. Long out of print, that book tells the story of the slow and steady building of the women’s medical movement in America over the course of a difficult near-century. When I first read the title of Campbell’s book, my heart sounded with the hope that this would be the volume to fill that void in the modern literature, a general account of the early women’s medical movement, encompassing both America and England.
That’s not what this book is, and it was entirely my fault for reading too much of my very particular hopes into the general title of the book. Campbell’s book is a triple biography of three particular women doctors, who probably never wore white coats but whose lives made it possible for later generations to do so: Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake. These figures have all had separate stand-alone biographies written about them, but as their lives and work intersected critically at many points, having a triple biography of them makes good sense, and Campbell is incredibly deft with leaping between their various stories in a spirited manner that allows the reader to maintain these three separate storylines without conflation, which is no mean feat in and of itself.
Women in White Coats, it turns out, provides an even more valuable service than the book I had been hoping for. It takes three lives, filled with drama and struggle and perseverance, and by paring them down to their central struggles and weaving them together, creates a narrative rope that is a far stronger and more compelling reading experience than any of their individual biographies have been. The multiplicity of the stories speaks to the universality of the struggle, and that lends a grandeur to the scope of their work and their battle that is harder to see when you focus on just a single one of their lives. Campbell has created the perfect single volume to put in the hands of a young person at the start of their medical careers, to give them a sense of the history of their craft and of inspiration to carry on through its various tribulations. I think that this will be, for some time to come, the standard introductory work to recommend to people interested in the 19th century fight for women’s medical education, a story of natural drama and hardship rendered irresistible by Campbell’s jaunty and lively narrative voice.
Lady Charlotte Guest: The Exceptional Life of a Female Industrialist
by Victoria Owens (Pen and Sword History, 2020)
This book was the inspiration for our recent feature on the life of Lady Guest, and it is a great example of the sort of historical research I dearly wish there was more of: a deep dive into the life of a woman who was called upon to assume a highly technical role in a society we generally think of as inimical to such roles for women. As students of European history, we know this sort of thing happened with some frequency – men who owned technologically sophisticated businesses would die, their children would not yet be of age, and for some time, their wives had to take over the oversight of that business.
Demographically, there’s no real way to avoid that situation entirely. What has been needed, then, is research into just how that process has worked. What obstacles do such women face? How have they met and surmounted them? Lady Charlotte Guest’s life is a perfect example of this, acted on the grandest industrial scale. As the widow of Dowlais ironmaster John Guest, she ran for a period of years one of Britain’s most important ironworks, whose products were a central component to the worldwide expansion of railroads that took place in the nineteenth century. Owens’s research shines a light on the many facets of this remarkable individual, who not only became conversant in the many sub-disciplines necessary to run a highly competitive international business, but was also a famous translator of medieval Welsh texts and a world expert on porcelain. It is an astounding story of a highly gifted individual from a relatively idle high society world, finding her purpose in the active realm of industrial production, bending her mind to master its intricacies, and harnessing her resolve to see an industry through some of its harshest times, and here is hoping that it inspires other historians to similar efforts.
The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
by Walter Isaacson (Simon and Schuster 2021)
You probably don’t need me to tell you that this book exists – to have one of humanity’s highest profile living scientists written about by one of its highest profile biographers has been a literary event all unto its own. The question you might have, which I might be of some use in illuminating is, “Is this book a more useful guide to Doudna’s work than her own book, 2017’s A Crack in Creation, or Jim Kozubek’s 2016 Modern Prometheus?”
The answer is, it depends on where your interests lie. If you want to get into the science of CRISPR-Cas9, you want Doudna’s book. Isaacson’s book, for all its luxurious use of multiple full color photos of all the major players in the development of CRISPR technology and random graphics of babies looking at gel electrophoresis trials, boasts just one highly abstracted diagram showing how CRISPR-Cas9 works, and when your book is about structural biochemistry, which is ALL ABOUT how shape determines function, the lack of visual aids is an almost unfathomable oversight. Lacking those, we are left to Isaacson’s prose descriptions of how CRISPR systems work, and those are mostly fine, but don’t tend to go much beyond the overall mechanisms involved. If you think you want more nuts and bolts than that, yeah, get yourself the Doudna.
Where Isaacson shines is in his portrayal of creative people, how they work with other creative people, how they approach the task of invention, and how they conceive of the nature of their work. Code Breaker is packed with mini-portraits of the pantheon of CRISPR heroes who have each added their distinctive styles and personalities to the story of modern gene editing, and Isaacson is able to communicate incredibly deftly what makes such people tick, to convey their enthusiasms while fairly judging their limitations. If you want what the science is, go to Doudna, if you want to know what making the science was like, pick up Isaacson.
Of course, the last half decade has also seen many dramatic events in the world of gene editing and RNA technology, and another virtue of Isaacson’s book is how it catches us up with things that were mere hypotheticals in Crack in Creation and Modern Prometheus. He Jiankui’s controversial use of CRISPR to engineer a pair of HIV-resistant twins in China in 2018, the rush to develop CRISPR methods to combat Covid in 2020, and the awarding of the Nobel Prize in that same year to Doudna and Charpentier are all major events in the history of modern bio science which Isaacson is able to present from the close vantage point of the people whose brilliance and competitive spirit drove them. It is eminently readable, judiciously even-handed, and will, I imagine, go far to create a new generation of biological dreamers, as The Double Helix did before it, and The Microbe Hunters before that.