The best books on historical women in science

Who am I?

Formerly curator of astronomy at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, I am an occasional writer and researcher and a now full-time primary school teacher in the north of England.  My popular books include The Stargazer’s Guide and The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel; I have also contributed to various academic publications, including a paper on William Herschel for Notes & Records of the Royal Society which won their 2014 Essay Award.


I wrote...

The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

By Emily Winterburn,

Book cover of The Quiet Revolution of Caroline Herschel: The Lost Heroine of Astronomy

What is my book about?

Caroline Herschel was a quiet, unassuming, always accommodating eighteenth-century singer turned astronomer. She discovered several comets, nebulae, and star clusters and contributed in various ways to a family project that allowed her brother, William Herschel to become an astronomer so prolific and inventive he is sometimes termed the father of modern astrophysics. Curiously, much of the work that made Caroline her own name in astronomy took place in a 10-year period entirely missing from her journal.

My book looks at those 10 years, in part to celebrate that work which made her the first woman ever published in the Royal Society and a respected name across Europe, but also to understand why she decided to destroy the journal evidencing of her thoughts and feelings during that same period.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Emily Winterburn Why did I love this book?

This beautiful book introduces 50 unsung women in science, giving a brief biography of each one.  Women in science are still often seen as a novelty, not as well known or celebrated as their male counterparts. It is often hard to find out about them because of their relative invisibility and this is especially true of women of colour and women from outside of Europe and America. Although not exhaustive, this book is a good introduction to some of the women across the world, and throughout time, who have helped shape science as we know it today. For similar reasons, it is also worth looking through some of Jess Wade’s biographies on Wikipedia if you’re interested in discovering a few more unsung heroines of science.

By Rachel Ignotofsky,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Women in Science as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 10, 11, 12, and 13.

What is this book about?

The perfect introduction for learning about women throughout history who dared to do the extraordinary! Inspire our new generation of women to explore, discover, persist, succeed, and fight like a girl! A great gift for girls 9-12!
Women have been doing amazing, daring, and dangerous things for years, but they're rarely mentioned in our history books as adventurers, daredevils, or rebels. This new compilation of brief biographies features women throughout history who have risked their lives for adventure-many of whom you may not know, but all of whom you'll WANT to know, such as:
Annie Edson Taylor, the first person…


Book cover of The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars

Emily Winterburn Why did I love this book?

This is a very readable account of a group of women working on a project at Harvard University’s observatory in the late nineteenth century. The project involved studying glass-plate negatives of the sky and in doing so learning more about the night sky, the composition of stars, and their evolution. Through the story of these women, Sobel shows the extent to which the university supported and nurtured them, it also brilliantly brings to life these women using their own words to show their awareness of certain injustices. This book is a great way into to understanding science as it properly is: more often than not collaborative and collective rather than the isolating work of a stereotypical lone genius. It is also a great story, engagingly told.

By Dava Sobel,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Glass Universe as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book

Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award

"A joy to read." -The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or "human computers," to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the…


Book cover of Vera Rubin: A Life

Emily Winterburn Why did I love this book?

This book – which came out at the same time as a picture book, also about Vera Rubin – tells the story of astronomer Vera Rubin and in particular her work bringing prominence to the theory of dark matter. Rubin’s work on galaxies showed dark matter was needed to explain what she could see. Before that, it had been simply one possible, if not widely supported, theory. The authors, husband and wife team, Jacqueline and Simon Mitton are both astronomers themselves, and tell the story of Vera Rubin with a great deal of respect. It is also filled with lots of primary sources as they allow Rubin’s story to be told as much as possible in her own words. Through those, we learn not only about her astronomy but also about her polite and direct way of dealing with the gender inequality she found in science and these are a joy to read.

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Vera Rubin as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A Physics Today Best Book of the Year

The first biography of a pioneering scientist who made significant contributions to our understanding of dark matter and championed the advancement of women in science.

One of the great lingering mysteries of the universe is dark matter. Scientists are not sure what it is, but most believe it's out there, and in abundance. The astronomer who finally convinced many of them was Vera Rubin. When Rubin died in 2016, she was regarded as one of the most influential astronomers of her era. Her research on the rotation of spiral galaxies was groundbreaking,…


Book cover of Science: A Four Thousand Year History

Emily Winterburn Why did I love this book?

To properly understand where women fit in to the history of science, we need to have a fair grasp of what science and the history of science is, and this book offers a perfect introduction. It is the antidote to many linear “progress” driven narratives that insist that the history of western science is simply a straight line from the Greeks with each generation building and improving on the one before. This book attempts to tell the whole story of science, science from across the world, the internationalism of it, the politics, the interrelation between ideas and culture. Although not strictly about historical women in science, I’ve included it here as a kind of foundation to understanding the rest.

By Patricia Fara,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Science as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Science: A Four Thousand Year History rewrites science's past. Instead of focussing on difficult experiments and abstract theories, Patricia Fara shows how science has always belonged to the practical world of war, politics, and business. Rather than glorifying scientists as idealized heroes, she tells true stories about real people - men (and some women) who needed to earn their living, who made mistakes, and who trampled down their rivals in their quest
for success.

Fara sweeps through the centuries, from ancient Babylon right up to the latest hi-tech experiments in genetics and particle physics, illuminating the financial interests, imperial ambitions,…


Book cover of Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong-And the New Research That's Rewriting the Story

Emily Winterburn Why did I love this book?

One obvious obstacle to women in science has been their historic additional work within the home. While men might have been able to devote themselves completely to their science, women would more often than not have had to find time for their science after they had first given time to their homes and children. In addition, however, there has been a long history of science “proving” women were physically and mentally incapable of participating in science. What makes this book really interesting is that it shows science to be biased; for all its claims of objectivity, it is still a human endeavour and so shaped by the biases of the humans carrying it out. In doing so, it shows why having women – and as diverse a range of women as possible – in science is so important. Without it, we are only getting biased science.

By Angela Saini,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Inferior as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Inferior is more than just a book. It's a battle cry - and right now, it's having a galvanising effect on its core fanbase' Observer

Are women more nurturing than men?
Are men more promiscuous than women?
Are males the naturally dominant sex?
And can science give us an impartial answer to these questions?

Taking us on an eye-opening journey through science, Inferior challenges our preconceptions about men and women, investigating the ferocious gender wars that burn in biology, psychology and anthropology. Angela Saini revisits the landmark experiments that have informed our understanding, lays bare the problem of bias in…


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Book cover of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

Marianne C. Bohr Author Of The Twenty: One Woman's Trek Across Corsica on the GR20 Trail

New book alert!

Who am I?

I married my high school sweetheart and travel partner, and followed my own advice to do graduate work, and started my career working for the French National Railroad in New York City, mapping itineraries for travelers to Europe. Travel means the world to me and if I don’t have a trip on the horizon, I feel aimless and untethered. I worked in book publishing for 30 years and dropped out of the corporate rat race to take a gap year abroad. I wrote about our “Senior year abroad” in my first book Gap Year Girl. I returned to the US to teach middle school French and organize student trips to France. 

Marianne's book list on by women about outdoor adventure

What is my book about?

Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica — the GR20, Europe’s toughest long-distance footpath — to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.

From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an “I’ll show them” attitude. But hiking GR20 forces her to transform a lifetime of hard-won achievements into acceptance of her body and its limitations.

The difficult journey across a remote island provides the crucible for exploring what it means to be an aging woman in a youth-focused culture, a physically fit person whose limitations are getting the best of her, and the partner of a husband who is growing old with her. More than a hiking tale, this is a moving story infused with humor about hiking, aging, accepting life’s finite journey, and the intimacy of a long-term marriage—set against the breathtaking beauty of Corsica’s rugged countryside.

By Marianne C. Bohr,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Twenty as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Great for fans of: Suzanne Roberts's Almost Somewhere, Juliana Buhring's This Road I Ride.


Marianne Bohr and her husband, about to turn sixty, are restless for adventure. They decide on an extended, desolate trek across the French island of Corsica-the GR20, Europe's toughest long-distance footpath-to challenge what it means to grow old. Part travelogue, part buddy story, part memoir, The Twenty is a journey across a rugged island of stunning beauty little known outside Europe.


From a chubby, non-athletic child, Bohr grew into a fit, athletic person with an "I'll show them" attitude. But hiking The Twenty forces her to…


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