Putting women back into the history of science

Readers who have been around here for a long time will know that for several years I was editor in chief of On Giants’ Shoulders the monthly history of science blog carnival. They will also know that I buried it when its time had come and replaced it with Whewell’s Gazette Your weekly digest of all the best of Internet history of science, technology and medicine Editor in Chief: The Ghost of William Whewell, which I edited for three years until it became just too much, closing it down in July 2017. Since then, I have maintained a more casual but fairly comprehensive interest in the history of science content on the Internet. All of this means that I probably have an at least as great awareness of the history of science cyberspace activity as anybody alive.

Without any doubt whatsoever, one of the most important and significant online contributions to the history of science, in all the time that I’ve been monitoring it, has been Lady Science. Originally set up seven years ago by Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, as a blog dedicated to emphasising the role of women in the history of science it became so much more. A magazine with features, essays, commentaries, ideas, reviews, and podcasts, which describes itself as A magazine for the history and popular culture of science. We publish a variety of voices & work on women and gender across the sciences, written by an ever-expanding group of authors, who maintain an impressively high standard of expression. 

 Sadly, last week Anna and Leila announced that they were closing down Lady Science at the end of 2021 and you can read their explanation why here. They are moving on to new projects and I wish them all the best, whilst shedding a silent tear for the loss of Lady Science

However, for all fans and supporters of their work, Reser and McNeill published an encyclopaedical collection of their work this year under the title, Forces of NatureThe Women Who Changed Science.[1]

 Following an introduction, that sets out the Lady Science approach to investigating the role that women have played in science, the book is divided into five sections: I Antiquity to the Middle Ages, II The Renaissance & The Enlightenment, III The Long Nineteenth Century, IV The Twentieth Century, Pre-World War II, and V Twentieth Century, Post-World War II. Each section is in turn divided thematically into the numerous areas where women made their contributions to the development of science. So, in section II we have a section on women calculators in astronomy and one on the wives and sisters of scientific partnership. In section III one on women science writers and popularisers and in section IV one on women archaeologists and anthropologists. These are just examples, to illustrate the width of the authors’ presentation. 

Both authors excellent narrators and the individual essays are written in an attractive, easy to read style and are richly illustrated; the whole book has an attractive graphic design. Following the main section there is an afterword titled Other women to inspire, containing thumbnail portraits of other women scientists not included in the main-text.

This is followed by an index of names, endnotes referring to the sources and a bibliography of those sources presented chapter for chapter. 

 Regular readers of my reviews are probably expecting comments on the historical accuracy of the individual essays; there are not going to be any. This is not because the book is perfect, I have found historical errors, but here this is not so essential, as in other contexts. This book is intended to serve a very different purpose. That purpose consists of a broad sweep to illustrate the roles that women have played in the evolution of science throughout the ages. It’s a wakeup call! Most history of science writing simply ignores the roles that women have played, and this should and indeed must change. To give a simple example out of my own area of expertise. Neither Johannes Hevelius (1611–1687) nor William Herschel (1738–1822), both very important and significant astronomers, could have achieved that which they achieved without the active involvement and support of their respective wife, Elisabeth (1647–1693) and sister Caroline (1750–1848), who were very much more than just housewives, but skilled and active astronomers in their own right. 

As well as a wakeup call for historians, this book should serve as an inspiration for any young woman contemplating a career or a life in one of the sciences. This book should be available in every American high school and college library and in the libraries of the equivalent educational institutions of other lands. Teachers should place this book in the hands of any girl interested in STEM subjects, to show them that not all scientists are male and there are plenty of female role models that they could aspire to emulating. Also, the book should finally make clear that Hypatia, Ada Lovelace, and Marie Curie are not the only female scientists that four thousand years of science have thrown up. Lastly if you are a parent with a daughter, who displays an interest in science, do yourself a favour and buy them a copy of this excellent book. 


[1] Anna Reser and Leila McNeill, Forces of NatureThe Women Who Changed Science, Frances Lincoln Publishing, London, 2021

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Filed under Book Reviews, Ladies of Science

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