The Women in Science Reading List: The 20 Best Books To Read and Own

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Dale DeBakcsy is a math and science teacher, dad of two daughters, and the man behind the outrageously entertaining series of comics The Illustrated Women In Science. Dale started building up a collection of female scientist biographies to fill a void in the school curriculum, where he had virtually no sources for the lives of female scientists to share with his students. Since, he has amassed an extraordinary collection of nineteenth and early twentieth century biographies.

“When I first started collecting biographies of female scientists, I thought the genre, thanks to the historical and systemic neglect of the subject matter, would be fun to collect and relatively easy to complete. Some Curie, some Meitner, a Franklin or two, and done,” Dale said. “Six years later, and my shelves are quite literally overflowing with books on the topic, with no end in sight. Bad news for my completionism, but good news for humanity.”

We asked Dale to share some of his favorites with us and he was more than happy to oblige.


The 20 Best Women In Science Books to Read and Own

By Dale DeBakcsy

20. The Fossil Hunter: Dinosaurs, Evolution, and the Woman Whose Discoveries Changed the World – by Shelley Emling

fossil_hunterMary Anning is a fascinating figure, somebody who changed paleontology before she was fifteen years old, and who was repeatedly taken advantage of by the scientific community for her troubles. The only reason this book isn’t higher is its tendency to muse at length on what Anning might have been thinking at different points. But if you’ve got a young paleontology fan in your house, this is a good one.


19. The Illustrated Women in Science: Year One – by Dale DeBakcsy

women_in_science_coverWell, of course I’m going to put my own book in here! Why, it’s got everything! Cartoons! Topological Surfaces! Fabiola Gianotti hanging out with Dr. Doom! You should order several severals of it now!


18. Ellen Swallow: The Woman Who Founded Ecology – by Robert Clarke

swallowWhen Clarke wrote this book in the Seventies, America was just coming back around to the ecological insights and concerns that Swallow had raised a half century earlier. It’s a great and earnest tale about one of the most undervalued figures in the history of twentieth century science, a woman who created several new branches of scientific inquiry from scratch. Earnest and inspiring, it’s worth hunting down.


17. An Autobiography and Other Recollections – by Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin

cecilia_paynePayne-Gaposchkin is the person who told us at long last what stars were made of, and had to fight every step of the way to do it. Time after time, she reversed or silenced herself in the face of her superiors’ scorn for her ideas. This autobiography tells the tales of those clashes, but also tells the story of doing science in a world that is trying to tear itself apart as fast as it can. A beautifully written tale of a vitally important scientific life.


16. Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries – by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne

nobel_prizeThere are a number of Women in Science compendia out there which offer twenty or so brief biographies of famous female scientists, but this one is my favorite. It focuses on all the women who won Nobel Prizes prior to 1993, with substantial biographies of each. As a diving-in point for the breadth and scope of female contributions to science, it’s hard to do better.


15. Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science – by Emma Ideal and Rhiannon Meharchand

blazing_trailI love this book, because it’s the only one on this list which went out of its way to ask what is happening in science right now. Ideal and Meharchand found a broad cross section of modern era female scientists and let them speak their own stories and concerns. It’s the first book on this list I’d give to anybody considering a career in science for some current insights into what all is going on and what to expect.


14. Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life – by Georgina Ferry

a life[Spoiler Alert]. Dorothy Hodgkin is coming up pretty soon in year three as one of the towering figures of early twentieth century crystallography. This book, the first work from Georgina Ferry, is a charming combination of science and life, leaning towards the latter. Pair it with Maddox’s Franklin and you’ve got the makings of a great week of reading.


13. On Her Own Terms: Annie Montague Alexander and the Rise of Science in the American West – by Barbara R. Stein

own_termsAlexander’s life was so weird and improbable that I don’t think you could write a bad biography of her if you set out to. It’s a story of the glory days when Oakland, California was the Athens of the West, and one woman set out to document the natural history of vanishing American ecosystems. Alexander, the rich heiress tromping through the wilds of Alaska with her specimen traps, is irresistible.


12. Seduced by Logic: Emilie du Chatelet, Mary Somerville, and the Newtonian Revolution – by Robyn Arianrhod

logicI have made no secret about not liking the title of this book, but everything else is delightful. A dual biography of two magnificent thinkers, one of whom brought Newton to France, and the other of whom brought Laplace to a mathematically mordant Britain, told with verve and panache.


11. Caroline Herschel: Priestess of the New Heavens – by Michael Hoskin

herschelHerschel lived for a gloomy near-century, a quarter of it as an unknown household drudge, a quarter as a bitter former celebrity, and a half as the nexus for the recataloguing of the Northern Sky. Hoskin is the main biographer of the whole Herschel clan, and this biography shines with his knowing familiarity with their foibles and quirks.


10. Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the American Romantics – by Renee Bergland

maria_mitchellThis book shines a light on a part of science that otherwise most people would have known nothing about, namely the pro-female, pro-science culture of Nineteenth Century Quakerism. That is a fascinating world to explore for a while, and we have Bergland to thank for unfolding it. Does Bergland say not particularly accurate things when she strays from this community? Yes. Are the statements about Ellen Swallow’s life and science ignorant and condescending? Yes. But if that’s the price we have to pay to get the rest, so be it.


9. Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics – by Ruth Lewin Sime

liseMeitnerThis is a delicious challenge of a book. It’s a scientific mystery where, rather than cast everything in terms of the solution that was ultimately arrived at, and which we’re all familiar with, we follow Meitner through the dim alleys and culs-de-sac of scientific progress, including all the dead-ends and wrong guesses and missed chances that bedevil every scientist. Sime doesn’t say, “This result was obtained, which we now know really happened because of X,” and thereby allow us to orient ourselves. She rather says, “This result was obtained, and made no sense, and Meitner interpreted it this way, and this is where that lead” without any hint of what corresponds to that result, making all of our modern knowledge of the topic useless, which is an interesting place to be.


8. Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century, A Biographical Dictionary with an Annotated Bibliography – by Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

womeninscience_ogilvieOgilvie is the wellspring of female scientist studies. This was the book that first put me onto the track of women scientists outside the Curie-Meitner-Franklin trinity, and it’s served that role for many others for four decades now. Today, much (but still not all, amazingly enough) of this information can be found through Wikipedia, but if you’re looking for the reference that Started It All, this is it.


7. Grace Hopper and the Invention of the Information Age – by Kurt W. Beyer

grace_hopper_beyerBeyer was charged with the task of making the standardization of programming code seem engaging, and he absolutely succeeded. Hopper was the hard-drinking, hard-working force behind the first compiler, the first de-bugging protocols, and the mammoth COBOL system, and Beyer tells her story in properly massive terms.


6. Emmy Noether’s Wonderful Theorem – by Dwight E. Neuenschwander

emmy_noetherI loves me a book that is half biography and half hard-core mathematics. That’s what this is. There’s a biographical introduction, followed by a steady and absolutely lovely development of Noether’s theorem that linked all the laws of conservation ever. If you’ve got your differential equations still in your skull, this makes for a fun and intellectually keen read.


5. In Praise of Imperfection – by Rita Levi-Montalcini

imperfectionIf it weren’t for Feynman, this might be my favorite scientific memoir of all time. The story of chasing down the secrets of Nerve Growth Factor while on the run from Mussolini’s fascist purity squads is gripping and highlighted here and there by bittersweet psychological insight into the work and troubles of the scientists around her.


4. Irene Joliot-Curie – by Noelle Loriot

Joliot_curieIrene Curie’s story has everything. The daughter of the most famous female scientist of all time, she herself lived a cinematic life that combined service amongst the carnage of World War I, resistance to the Nazis, service as a government minister, and all the while a persistent level of scientific excellence that uncovered the phenomenon of artificial radiation. Loriot has a firm grasp of Curie’s haunted psychological world, and tells the story with vividness. If you are comfortable with reading French, this is one of the tucked-away delights of the genre.


3. Jane Goodall: The Woman Who Redefined Man – by Dale Peterson

jane_goodall_petersonMassively researched, engagingly written, Peterson’s Goodall is a perfect combination of field science gnashing against bureaucracy with a small clutch of idiosyncratic pioneers dancing around the chaos to make fundamental discoveries about the natural world. Peterson takes nothing for granted. While other biographers usually toss off the Childhood and Ancestors section without any particular care for finding the fragile beauty therein, Peterson makes this section among the most interesting in a book filled to the brim with Very Interesting Things.


2. Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis – by Kim Todd

chrysalisWhen I get asked in interviews or after talks about who my favorite female scientist is, my answer is immediate: Merian. And Todd’s book is mainly responsible for that. She tells the story of Merian’s exotic, artistic, scientifically rigorous, but spiritually complex life with easy grace and a real sense of her importance in the development of an ecological approach to taxonomy. Plus, it includes a nice selection of Merian’s absolutely gorgeous entomological illustrations. A book lovely in every detail.


1. Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA – by Brenda Maddox

rosalind_franklinI know, it’s like ending a list of the Top 100 Albums of All Time with Sgt. Pepper or Thriller. But, guess what, Sgt. Pepper and Thriller were really good albums, and The Dark Lady of DNA is a phenomenally good book. I don’t know what I love most about it. The portrayal of the British Jewish community at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Franklin’s carefree years doing coal science in Paris, falling desperately in love while honing her craft. The masterful account of her time doing DNA crystallography in the least amenable work environment ever. Actually, I do know what I love most, and it’s Maddox’s account of her years researching the Tobacco Mosaic Virus, surrounded at last by people who respected her and whom she respected in turn, traveling the world as a scientific celebrity all the while slowly dying inside from cancer. It’s a triumphant tragic end, and Maddox handles it beautifully.

So, there you have it, twenty books to start off your own collection!

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