The best books on historical women in science

The Books I Picked & Why

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

By Rachel Ignotofsky

Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World

Why 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.


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

By Dava Sobel

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

Why 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.


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Vera Rubin: A Life

By Jacqueline Mitton, Simon Mitton

Vera Rubin: A Life

Why 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.


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Science: A Four Thousand Year History

By Patricia Fara

Science: A Four Thousand Year History

Why 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.


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

By Angela Saini

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

Why 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.


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