OSB archive
OSB archive

Reading up on women in science

Pete Wilton

How much do we know about the great female scientists of the past?

As part of researching a new children's book Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University's Department of Zoology has been finding out. OxSciBlog asked her about her new project and the unsung heroines of science...

OxSciBlog: Why choose to write a children's book on female scientists?
Sunetra Gupta: It was really my colleague Martin Maiden's idea. I was trying to think of a suitable project to promote women in science (as part of my application for the Rosalind Franklin Award) and Martin came up with this project. I instantly approached Ted Dewan to see if he was interested in illustrating it, and to my great good fortune he agreed.

Ted is an incredibly versatile  illustrator and author of children's fiction and non-fiction as well as science books for adults. He also has a fantastic sense of humour: his website mentions that "at age 15 he won his first drawing competition at the local Baskin Robbins Ice Cream store. The prize was a pink card entitling him to 31 free ice cream cones" - two of these apparently remain unredeemed…

One of the reasons the project appealed to me was because I had, myself, been inspired at a young age by reading a biography of Marie Curie - and yet, I realised I had never had the opportunity to find out about any other women scientists. There is definitely a niche here waiting to be filled. Also, at a completely selfish level, I was eager to remedy my own serious gaps in knowledge about their lives and their science.

OSB: Which scientists did you most enjoy finding out about?
SG: So far, I have only read about two people in sufficient depth - Rosalind Franklin and Anna Thynne. Rosalind Franklin is an obvious choice and I have very much enjoyed Brenda Maddox's biography, as well the very interesting defence of her by Anne Sayre in response to James Watson's portrayal of her as 'Rosie', the grumpy research assistant.

I might never have come across Anna Thynne but for a lovely little book by Rebecca Stott which I had been sent some time ago when it had been submitted for a prize I was judging. She was a very remarkable woman - wife of the sub-Dean of Westminster Abbey (while Buckland was Dean), mother of many, and can be credited with establishing the first marine aquarium in her living room. This is all in the early 19th century - by the 1850s aquaria were all the craze.

Another woman I felt ashamed not to have known much about is the 18th century astronomer Caroline Herschel; I have been reading about her in Richard Holmes's fantastic new book 'The Age of Wonder' and cannot wait to lay my hands on her diaries.

OSB: What has been the most challenging aspect of your research?
SG: Finding the time to do it. My commitments as an academic are quite extensive, and I am also very far behind on delivering a book on science and literature that I was funded to write by the Arts Council in 2007. There is also the tug of wanting to carry on with my new novel, and to spend time with my two daughters.

Researching the book has been pure pleasure, and writing my fragments (we are currently adopting a scrap-book format) has also been a lot of fun. Ted has been producing some amazing illustrations - he is absolute dream to work with. We've had some crucial decisions to make regarding layout and content - these have probably been the hardest bits so far.

OSB: What do you hope young readers will take away from the book?
SG: Some acquaintance with the lives of these women would probably be as much as I expect, but I'm naturally hoping that they (girls and boys alike) might find some inspiration here. Many of these women had to struggle, to adapt, to compromise, to suffer, and they always carried on. Even if they are not attracted to a scientific career, knowing the stories of these women scientists can have a transforming effect on young minds.

OSB: How has the book changed how you think about the female scientists of the past?
SG: It is embarrassing how little I knew about these women beyond the vague notion that they were brave and had to endure much. Whereas I had a much larger acquaintance with the lives of women writers, thanks to books such as Gilbert & Gubar's 'The Madwoman in the Attic' and, of course, all the biographies that are so readily available, not to mention the films about them.

I hear that a film is being made on Ada Lovelace (daughter of Lord Byron and possibly the first computer programmer) with Zooey Deschanel in her role, so perhaps women scientists will finally be in the public eye.

Again, I will say that the main benefit here is to learn about inspiring personalities - not everyone who enjoys 'Becoming Jane' is destined to become a writer, not everyone who falls in love with Zooey Deschanel as Ada Lovelace in ‘Enchantress of Numbers’ will become a scientist, but something will have been added to each person by learning about their lives and passions.

Professor Sunetra Gupta is based at Oxford's Department of Zoology.