History (of Science) Books by Women

Last weekend saw several major newspapers publishing their books of the year list. Unfortunately these displayed, in several aspects, a serious lack of balance. Science and history of science books came up more than somewhat short and in some categories the male dominance was glaring. The latter problem provoked the following tweet by historian and history book author Lucy Worsley:

8 of 9 of the ‘history books of the year’ in today’s Times, and 19 out of 21 of ditto in today’s Telegraph, are by men. I’m not impressed. Lucy Worsley

In reaction to this tweet a hash tag sprang into life, #HistoryBooksbyWomen, under which some just listed the names of female history book authors and others tweeted names and book titles. My discipline the history of science is blessed with many excellent female historians, authors of many first class books. This being the case I thought that I might cruise along my bookshelves and present here a lightly annotated list of some of those books by women that have enriched and informed my career as a historian of science.

I start with my #histsci soul sisterTM, Rebekah ‘Becky’ Higgitt, whose volume in the way the nineteenth century saw Isaac Newton, Recreating Isaac, I reviewed here.

Becky is also co-author of the beautiful Finding Longitude, which I reviewed here. (Her co-author Richard Dunn is a man but we won’t hold it against him).

Staying with Newton we have Sarah Dry telling us what happened to his manuscripts in The Newton Papers and Lesley Murdin Under Newton’s Shadow: Astronomical Practices in the Seventeenth Century.


In the world of navigation, cartography and geodesy we have Christine Garwood Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, Joyce E. Chaplin Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit, Silvia Sumira Globes: 400 Years of Exploration Navigation and Power and Rachel Hewitt Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey.


Representing the Middle Ages we have two biographies Nancy Marie Brown The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages and Louise Cochrane Adelard of Bath: The First English Scientist. For fans of automata there is E. R. Truitt’s delightful Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art.


In the early modern period and the emergence of modern science we have Pamela O. Long Artisan/Practitioners and the Rise of the New Science, Pamela H. Smith The Body of the Artisan, Paula Findlen Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and Scientific Culture in Early Modern Italy, Deborah E. Harkness The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Eileen Reeves Galileo’s Glassworks, Lisa Jardine Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution, her Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory, her On a Grander Scale: The Outstanding Life and Tumultuous Times of Sir Christopher Wren, and her The Curious Life of Robert Hooke: The Man Who Measured London, Ulinka Rublack The Astronomer & the Witch: Johannes Kepler’s Fight for His Mother, Sachiko Kusukawa Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany and Susan Dackerman ed. Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in the Early Modern Period Featuring essays by Susan Dackerman, Lorraine Daston, Katherine Park, Susanne Karr Schmidt and Claudia Swann.


Turning to the eighteenth century we have Patricia Fara A Entertainment for Angels: Electricity in the Enlightenment, Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? How eighteenth-century science disrupted the natural order and Jenny Uglow The Lunar Men: The Friends Who Made the Future.


No Renaissance Mathematicus book list would be complete without some esoteric history. We start with Monica Azzolini The Duke and the Stars: Astrology and Politics in Renaissance Milan that I reviewed here, Louise Hill Cuth English almanacs, astrology & popular medicine: 1550–1700, Tamsyn Barton Ancient Astrology, Pamela H. Smith The Business of Alchemy: Science and Culture in the Holy Roman Empire, Frances A. Yates The Rosicrucian Enlightenment and her Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition as well as Ingrid D. Rowland Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic. Somewhere between the stools Lorraine Daston & Katherine Park Wonders and the Order of Nature.


Mathematics are represented by Kim Plofker Mathematics in India and Serafina Cuomo Ancient mathematics. Astronomy and cosmology by M. R. Wright Cosmology in Antiquity, Kitty Ferguson Measuring the Universe and Jessica Ratcliff The Transit of Venus Enterprise in Victorian Britain.


We close with a potpourri of titles that don’t quite fit into any of the categories above. We start with two excellent books by Laura J. Snyder, her four-way biography of nineteenth-century Cambridge polymaths The Philosophical Breakfast Club: Four Remarkable Friends Who Transformed Science and Changed the World and her double seventeenth-century art and science biography Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing. Two further biographies are Brenda Maddox Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA and Dorothy Stein Ada: A Life and a Legacy. Patricia Fara gives us a general survey of science history in Science A Four Thousand Year History and a look at the role some women played in that history in Pandora’s Breeches: Women, Science & Power in the Enlightenment. Deborah Jaffé also looks at the role of women in science and technology in Ingenious Women: From Tincture of Saffron to Flying Machines. Last but by no means least we have Ingrid D. Rowland’s translation of Vitruvius: Ten Books of Architecture.


This list is of course fairly random and somewhat arbitrary and is in no way comprehensive or exhaustive. All of the books that I have included are in my opinion good and quite a lot of them are excellent. They demonstrate that there is width, depth and variety in the writings produced by women in the history of science taken in its widest sense. Should any misogynistic male of the species turn up in the comments and claim that the above list is only so impressive, and I find it very impressive, because I, in some way, privilege or favour female historians then I must point out that I have many more history of science books by male authors than by female ones on my bookshelves.

If you wish to add your own favourite history of science books authored by women in the comments you are more than welcome.


Filed under Book Reviews, History of science, Ladies of Science

15 responses to “History (of Science) Books by Women

  1. Robert E. Harris

    I was already two years behind on my reading.


    Robert E. Harris

  2. Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch for the category, but I immediately thought of Mary Carruthers’ the Book of Memory, a fascinating work that gets further into what the art of memory really was and how it worked than the much better known Frances Yales book, which is more general and accessible. Carruthers wrote a couple of other books that deal with thinking as a learned and disciplined practice in the Middle Ages. I’m a bit surprised and somewhat disappointed that she isn’t better known.

  3. Tony Angel

    To mention a few.

    Barbara J. Becker. Unravelling Starlight: William and Margaret Huggins and the Rise of the New Astronomy – a great read – another gestalt couple

    Mary Bruck – Women in Early British and Irish Astronomy Stars and Satellites

    Mary Bruck – Agnes Mary Clerke and the Rise of Astrophysics

  4. darwinsbulldog

    If anyone is interested in women writing books about Darwin, evolution, natural history, etc, here are some titles I am familiar with:

    Janet Browne’s two-part biography, Voyaging and The Power of Place and her work on biogeography, The Secular Ark

    Sandra Herbert, Charles Darwin, Geologist

    Rebecca Stott, Darwin and the Barnacle

    Erika Milam, Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology

    Londa Schiebinger, Nature’s Body: Gender in the Making of Modern Science

    Harriet Ritvo, The Platypus and the Mermaid and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination

    Helen M. Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea

    Sherrie Lynne Lyons, Species, Serpents, Spirits, and Skulls: Science at the Margins in the Victorian Age

    Kristin Johnson, Ordering Life: Karl Jordan and the Naturalist Tradition

    Kimberly A. Hamlin, From Eve to Evolution: Darwin, Science, and Women’s Rights in Gilded Age America

    Constance Areson Clark, God – or Gorilla: Images of Evolution in the Jazz Age

    Karen A. Rader and Victoria E.M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science & Natural History in the Twentieth Century

    Sally Gregory Kohlstedt, Teaching Children Science: Hands-On Nature Study in North America, 1890-1930 (and other works on the history of science in America)

    Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis, Unifying Biology

    Lynn K. Nyhart, Biology Takes Form: Animal Morphology and the German Universities, 1800-1900 and Modern Nature: The Rise of the Biological Perspective in Germany

    (forthcoming) Evelleen Richards, Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection

    (forthcoming) Samantha Evans, ed., Darwin and Women: A Selection of Letters

    • Thanks Michael, a great addition from an area of #histsci where I’m ignorant but you are a master

    • Notable by their omission,

      Nora Barlow (née Darwin) – Autobiography of Charles Darwin

      Edna Healey – Emma Darwin: The inspirational wife of a genius

      Henrietta Litchfield, ed. – Emma Darwin, wife of Charles Darwin. A century of family letters.

      Dava Sobel – Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

      • I naturally wouldn’t delete it, because it’s your recommendations, but as it’s on my blog I feel honour bound to point out that Sobel’s Longitude is not good history of science. See my review of Higgitt & Dunn Longitude linked in article above

      • Jeb

        ‘The true story of a lone genius’ and “The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages.”

        Not read either but would not even pick them up to glance at in a book shop just down to the title. I notice the short discriptive sales blurb on a number of the books has the same effect on me.

        Seems to act like a gaint flashing neon sign that says Wiggish history do not buy.

      • Actually Jeb, Nancy Brown’s book, a biography of Gerbert of Aurillac, is much better than its title, whereas, in my opinion, Sobel’s book is worse than its.

  5. Too many books – not enough time!

  6. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year 3, Vol. #16 | Whewell's Ghost

  7. Wow! What a list. I can’t wait to start reading. I’m looking forward to the holiday break when I can sit and read some of these books in peace.

  8. What a solid list! Now I don’t know which of the titles you’ve mentioned I should order first – I would toss a coin, but I’d rather rely on your good judgment for recommendation. My allegiance is in biology so my instinct tells me to go order Maddox’s biography of Rosalind Franklin or Susannah Gibson Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? – but as I live in a 3rd world country where money is hard to come by, I’m left with no other option but to choose only one for the meantime. Which among the two did you enjoy best? I take delight in coupling historical data with nuance, and in that regard, do both of these books offer their own unique takes on the historical subjects that they focus on?

    But let me also add to the list of books:

    Deborah Cadbury’s The Dinosaur Hunters is an excellent take on the early days of British paleontology.

    Natalie Angier’s Natural Obsessions: The Search for the Oncogene is a personal favorite and perhaps bolstered by my adoration for the author.

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