The best books about women in science whose names everyone should know

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve always loved science—especially ecology and geology, because I grew up among the strange plants and rocky mountains of the Sonoran Desert. In college, however, I found my chosen field felt a little lonely. I didn’t know many stories about the women who had come before me. Now, I know history is full of women who ran rivers, climbed mountains, and made significant scientific contributions in their chosen fields. I find power in these stories, which I hope will make the world of science more welcoming to people of all backgrounds—and also reveal science as the great adventure I always felt it to be.  

I wrote...

Book cover of Brave the Wild River: The Untold Story of Two Women Who Mapped the Botany of the Grand Canyon

What is my book about?

Brave the Wild River chronicles the 1938 journey of botanists Elzada Clover and Lois Jotter down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. They set out with an ambitious but relatively inexperienced expedition leader and three amateur boatmen, eager to “botanize” the beautiful and bizarre plant life of this little-known corner of the American West. The book is both a heart-pounding adventure story and an exploration of the region’s intricate natural and human history. It’s also a tribute to two remarkable women who had the courage to go where they were told they didn’t belong.  

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Soundings: The Story of the Remarkable Woman Who Mapped the Ocean Floor

Melissa L. Sevigny Why did I love this book?

Until the mid-20th century it was largely assumed that nothing interesting lay on the bottom of the ocean floor.

Enter Marie Tharp, whose pioneering work mapping the records of soundings (sonar pings) laid the groundwork—literally—for our modern understanding of how the world’s continents and oceans are put together. Hali Felt’s biography of Tharp restores her to her rightful place in science history. I enjoyed, especially, the artistry involved in Tharp’s maps, which complied data from ocean expeditions that Tharp herself, as a woman, wasn’t allowed to join.

And, as a fan of geology, I was fascinated by Felt’s descriptions of how our modern understanding of continental drift and tectonic plates evolved from Tharp’s work.

By Hali Felt,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In a time when women were held back by the casually sexist atmosphere of mid-twentieth century academia - a time when trained geologists like Tharp were routinely relegated to the role of secretary or assistant - Tharp's work would completely change the world's understanding of our planet's evolution. By transforming dry data into beautifully detailed maps that laid the groundwork for proving the then-controversial theory of continental drift, Tharp, along with her lifelong partner, Bruce Heezen, upended scientific consensus and ushered in a new era in geology and oceanography.

Book cover of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race

Melissa L. Sevigny Why did I love this book?

As a schoolchild I was enthralled by descriptions of America’s race to the Moon to beat the Soviet Union. But until Margot Lee Shetterly’s groundbreaking book, few knew of the Black female mathematicians who made it possible.

Hidden Figures is a sweeping work of American history that covers three decades and honors hundreds of women who worked as “computers”—back when computers were people, not machines—for NASA and its predecessor, NACA.

At its heart are three women, Katharine Johnson, Mary Jackson, Dorothy Vaughan, who were skilled mathematicians and engineers. The book unflinchingly confronts America’s racism and sexism but remains a story of triumph and courage. It inspired me to think differently about the history I learned in grade school, and should be required reading for all Americans. 

By Margot Lee Shetterly,

Why should I read it?

9 authors picked Hidden Figures as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Soon to be a major motion picture starring Golden Globe-winner Taraji P. Henson and Academy Award-winners Octavia Spencer and Kevin Costner Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA's African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America's space program-and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now. Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as "Human Computers," calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American…

Book cover of Women in White Coats: How the First Women Doctors Changed the World of Medicine

Melissa L. Sevigny Why did I love this book?

Victorian women were once welcomed as nurses and caretakers, but barred from the world of medicine.

Elizabeth Blackwell, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, and Sophia Jex-Blake sought to change that. Olivia Campbell tells the story of how these three women earned medical degrees and changed the nature of medicine. One gripping part of the narrative, for me, were the stories of female patients who avoided medical care due to the indifference of their male doctors or the stigma associated with many types of disease.

It’s a battle that women still fight in today, and I found Women in White Coats to be both a fascinating history and highly relevant to our modern experiences in healthcare. 

By Olivia Campbell,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Women in White Coats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Meet the pioneering women who changed the medical landscape for us all

For fans of Hidden Figures and Radium Girls comes the remarkable story of three Victorian women who broke down barriers in the medical field to become the first women doctors, revolutionising the way women receive health care.

In the early 1800s, women were dying in large numbers from treatable diseases because they avoided receiving medical care. Examinations performed by male doctors were often demeaning and even painful. In addition, women faced stigma from illness--a diagnosis could greatly limit their ability to find husbands, jobs or be received in…

Book cover of The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women

Melissa L. Sevigny Why did I love this book?

Brace yourself for a heart-wrenching and sometimes horrifying journey with the factory girls of the early 1900s who were poisoned by the radium they used at work—marketed as safe by industry leaders who knew better.

Though not scientists themselves, these young women were forced to become experts in their own health, as their bodies were ravaged by radium. Grace Fryer stood out to me—she died in 1933 with no legal acknowledgment that her disease was linked to her occupation—as did Catherine Donohue, whose death five years later came after an uphill battle for justice.

This is a heartbreaking and necessary story. 

By Kate Moore,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Radium Girls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Emma Watson's Our Shared Shelf book club choice
New York Times bestseller

'Fascinating.' Sunday Times
'Thrilling.' Mail on Sunday

All they wanted was the chance to shine.

Be careful what you wish for...

'The first thing we asked was, "Does this stuff hurt you?" And they said, "No." The company said that it wasn't dangerous, that we didn't need to be afraid.'

As the First World War spread across the world, young American women flocked to work in factories, painting clocks, watches and military dials with a special luminous substance made from radium. It was a fun job, lucrative and…

Book cover of Forces of Nature: The Women who Changed Science

Melissa L. Sevigny Why did I love this book?

This book is a whirlwind tour of scientific history from Antiquity to the twentieth century, highlighting the often-forgotten women who have been doing science all along.

Among them are Nicole-Reine Lepaute, the French astronomer who helped calculate the path of Halley’s Comet; Jeanne Baret, who disguised herself as a man to circumnavigate the globe; and Bertha Parker, an Abenaki and Seneca archeologist.

Many of the women in this book rightfully have entire books of their own, but I was drawn to Forces of Nature for its sweeping perspective—and also the realization of just how many women made significant contributions to science, even if I never learned their names in school. I found it inspirational, reminding me that I’m not alone in my love of scientific inquiry.  

By Anna Reser, Leila McNeill,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

From the ancient world to the present women have been critical to the progress of science, yet their importance is overlooked, their stories lost, distorted, or actively suppressed. Forces of Nature sets the record straight and charts the fascinating history of women's discoveries in science.

In the ancient and medieval world, women served as royal physicians and nurses, taught mathematics, studied the stars, and practiced midwifery. As natural philosophers, physicists, anatomists, and botanists, they were central to the great intellectual flourishing of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. More recently women have been crucially involved in the Manhattan Project, pioneering…

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Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

Book cover of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

John Kenneth White Author Of Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Reading was a childhood passion of mine. My mother was a librarian and got me interested in reading early in life. When John F. Kennedy was running for president and after his assassination, I became intensely interested in politics. In addition to reading history and political biographies, I consumed newspapers and television news. It is this background that I have drawn upon over the decades that has added value to my research.

John's book list on who we are, how we’ve changed, and what gives us hope

What is my book about?

It didn’t begin with Donald Trump. When the Republican Party lost five straight presidential elections during the 1930s and 1940s, three things happened: (1) Republicans came to believe that presidential elections are rigged; (2) Conspiracy theories arose and were believed; and (3) The presidency was elevated to cult-like status.

Long before Trump, each of these phenomena grew in importance. The John Birch Society and McCarthyism became powerful forces; Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first “personal president” to rise above the party; and the development of what Harry Truman called “the big lie,” where outrageous falsehoods came to be believed. Trump…

Grand Old Unraveling: The Republican Party, Donald Trump, and the Rise of Authoritarianism

By John Kenneth White,

What is this book about?

It didn't begin with Donald Trump. The unraveling of the Grand Old Party has been decades in the making. Since the time of FDR, the Republican Party has been home to conspiracy thinking, including a belief that lost elections were rigged. And when Republicans later won the White House, the party elevated their presidents to heroic status-a predisposition that eventually posed a threat to democracy. Building on his esteemed 2016 book, What Happened to the Republican Party?, John Kenneth White proposes to explain why this happened-not just the election of Trump but the authoritarian shift in the party as a…

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Interested in women in mathematics, female doctors, and women in the sciences?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about women in mathematics, female doctors, and women in the sciences.

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