This illustrated book for readers aged nine and up is part of the “Brilliant Women” series about women who have made their marks in fields traditionally seen as only appropriate for men.
There are eight women who are featured in four-page profiles, with some additional science and technology heroines who receive thumbnail sketches.
Caroline Herschel, born in 1750, began working as her astronomer brother’s housekeeper and then became his assistant. She ended up making her own discoveries. In 1786, she became the first woman to discover a comet. She was also the first woman ever to be paid for scientific research.
In 1783, Caroline discovered fourteen new nebulae and star clusters and two new galaxies (all while still doing the housekeeping).
She was the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (1828), and garnered a number of other scientific awards as well. In addition, the King of Prussia presented her with a Gold Medal for Science on the occasion of her 96th birthday (1846).
Mary Anning, born in 1799, was a paleontologist who only began fossil hunting to earn money. It was Mary who discovered the skeleton of the ichthyosaur, a finding that “began to make scientists question the history of the Earth…” She also discovered plesiosaurs and pterosaurs, and figured out what coprolites were, i.e., “fossilized dinosaur poo.”
Ada Lovelace, born in 1815, is known as the creator of the first computer algorithm because of her work on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
Interestingly, Ada was also the only legitimate child of the poet George, Lord Byron and his wife Anne, Lady Wentworth. Byron, while now regarded as one of the greatest British poets, during his life was known for his aristocratic excesses, including huge debts and numerous love affairs with both men and women. Lady Wentworth left her husband a month after Ada was born, and Byron left England forever four months later; Ada never knew him.
Marie Curie, born Marie Sklodowska in Poland in 1867, was the first person to be awarded two Nobel Prizes, and the only person honored with a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Marie’s husband Pierre Curie was also a Nobel laureate, as were her daughter Irène Joliot-Curie and her son-in-law Frédéric Joliot-Curie.
The author tells us that Marie initially attended an illegal underground college called the “Flying University” because women could only be taught in secret. She wanted an “official” degree though, so she left Poland for Paris to attend the Sorbonne. There she completed two degrees, one in physics and one in math. She and her future husband, professor Pierre Curie, studied x-rays together, and discovered two new elements, radium and polonium.
Lisë Meitner is known as the mother of the atomic bomb. She was born in 1878 in Vienna. She and Otto Hahn together discovered nuclear fission. Lisë had to flee Austria when the Nazis took over, but stayed in touch with Hahn to help him understand nuclear fission. Only Hahn won official recognition for the discovery with his award of the Nobel Prize.
Barbara McClintock, born in 1902 in Connecticut, was a ground-breaking geneticist. She produced the first genetic map for maize, linking regions of the chromosome to physical traits. She demonstrated the role of the telomere and centromere, regions of the chromosome that are important in the conservation of genetic information. She was recognized as among the best in the field, awarded prestigious fellowships, and elected a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944. Her work was finally recognized with a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
Katherine Johnson, born in West Virginia in 1918, was one of the “human computers” who helped NASA, especially in the days before machine computers, put men into space. By age thirteen, she was attending the high school on the campus of historically black West Virginia State College. At eighteen, she enrolled in the college itself. Katherine graduated with highest honors in 1937 and took a job teaching at a black public school in Virginia.
In 1952 she heard about open positions at the all-black West Area Computing section at the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (later renamed NASA), headed by fellow West Virginian Dorothy Vaughan. Katherine and her husband decided to move the family to Newport News to pursue the opportunity, and Katherine began work there in the summer of 1953.
Katherine did trajectory analysis for Alan Shepard’s May 1961 mission Freedom 7, America’s first human spaceflight. In 1962, as NASA prepared for the orbital mission of John Glenn, Katherine Johnson was called upon to verify the work of the machine computers; Glenn waited for her analysis before he would go ahead with the Friendship 7 mission.
Jane Goodall, a primatologist born in London in 1934, “made amazing scientific discoveries about chimpanzees by studying them in the wild.” Jane was only the eighth person to be allowed to gain a Ph.D. at Cambridge without having a degree. In 1977 she founded the Jane Goodall Institute, a global wildlife and environmental conservation organization.
Thumbnail sketches of some additional exceptional women scientists follow. These women represent a more diverse selection than the eight who have the main profiles; I would have liked to have seen a better mix in the main portion of the book.
The author appends a glossary and list of sources for further information.
Rita Petruccioli is an Italian illustrator and comic book artist. Her cartoon-like illustrations are colorful and entertaining.
Evaluation: These stories of women science and technology pioneers, selected from a diverse group of women around the world, are inspirational and awe-inspiring. The book is a welcome addition to any collection for kids.
Published in the U.S. by Barron’s Educational Series, Inc. (now B.E.S. Publishing), 2018