Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Winter 2000

Book Reviews

Notable Women Scientists

Ann Jensen
Astronomy/Mathematics/Statistics Library
University of California, Berkeley

Notable Women Scientists edited by Pamela Proffitt. Farmington Hills, Mich. Gale Group, 1999. 668 pp. $85.00 ISBN 0-7876-3900-1
This reference book describes the careers and contributions of women in science from antiquity to the present, from Theano (wife of Pythagoras) to the women astronauts of the 1980's and 1990's. The stories of a sizable group of contemporary women scientists who have not yet had the brush of history to fully evaluate their contributions provide a look at current fields within science, and show an expanding range of pursuit and careers. Over 250 photographs, line drawings or paintings of the women illustrate the text. The advisory board of two includes Margaret Alic, author of Hypatia's Heritage (1986), and Phyllis Holman Weisbard, Women's Studies Librarian at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The 485 biographical essays are written by more than 75 contributors. Credentials or institutional affiliation for these writers would strengthen the volume.

The editor hopes "these stories will inspire young women to choose careers in science and that readers in general will be inspired by the remarkable accomplishments of these women". That bias is in part what makes this volume unique. But it also detracts from the book's value as a scholarly resource when it results in unsubstantiated opinions, as it does in several entries.

Each entry includes a brief description of the scientific and historical context within which the woman lived and worked, highlights of her upbringing and education, and also a clear and concise description of her contributions. Most entries also include some description of obstacles overcome by the woman, or societal expectations that limited or changed her opportunities. It is this aspect which provides the inspirational uniqueness to the compilation. Collectively, these women are models whose lives have taken twists and turns often beyond their control, who have overcome frustration, disadvantage and limitations, and who have forged success from second or third choices.

This volume identifies important contributions made by women working alongside men, either husbands or other collaborators, during those years when they couldn't take credit for their own work. For most entries, selected writings by the scientist are listed, with several resources about their work listed as "Further Reading".

Scientific contributions are defined broadly. Practitioners from the traditional scientific, engineering, and medical disciplines are included. The volume also includes women whose careers are measured differently: a trained mathematician whose major contributions are in higher education administration; anthropologists, airline pilots and astronauts, botanical illustrators, early taxonomists, and women whose knowledge and expertise allowed them to write about and interpret the scientific work of others. Contributions are described from women whose work never broke from the ranks of amateur, yet whose work is esteemed as it added value to collaborators or the work of others.

Domestic details personalize the stories, and elucidate the many ways that some women took detours or times out for family, marriage, or as adaptations to the norms of their day. These details will capture the imagination of younger readers, and add to the sense of accomplishment over odds that these essays present. However, in trying to make that case for almost every entry, the contributors seem too quick to make unsubstantiated claims that a particular woman was the "first" to break a barrier, or the "best" at some particular aspect of science. These claims may in fact be valid, but they are primarily undocumented within each entry, and are so ubiquitous that they sound hollow after a while. Original sources are sometimes quoted, with no reference for the quote given. In an essay describing one early scientist who felt required to publish under a pseudonym, that pseudonym is not included.

My enthusiasm for the overall value of this volume is severely diminished by the unending errors and sloppy editing it contains. Starting with the press release, through and including almost every one of the 668 pages, there are typographical errors, errors in grammar and spelling, sentences which make no sense, and factual errors. One entry describes a woman who established a school for girls and ran it for the next 80 years. Since she is said to have died at age 85, she must have started the school as a five year old.

Occasional errors, while not desirable, can be reluctantly overlooked. However, the errors throughout this publication are so rampant that the presentation becomes unworthy of the women's stories included in it, whose accomplishments were undoubtedly based on care and attention to detail in all aspects of their endeavors.

I recommend this volume with caution. It is a useful compendium of inspirational and factual stories of women in a vast range of scientific pursuit. But as an example of expertise in one's calling, it falls short and is itself not a proud example to put before young scholars.


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