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More Than Just Marie Curie

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary and Bibliography. Manlyn Bailey Ogilvie. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986. 272 pp. $25. Anyone seeking accurate biographical information about women scientists of the past will find this work an indispensable reference tool. This has previously been a very difficult and daunting task for the little available information was often scattered, sketchy, and at times erroneous or inconsistent. Just how much of an

By | February 9, 1987

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century: A Biographical Dictionary and Bibliography. Manlyn Bailey Ogilvie. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1986. 272 pp. $25.


Anyone seeking accurate biographical information about women scientists of the past will find this work an indispensable reference tool. This has previously been a very difficult and daunting task for the little available information was often scattered, sketchy, and at times erroneous or inconsistent. Just how much of an advance Ogilvie's book is can be illustrated by comparing it with the previous major biographical dictionary for the history of science, the monumental, 16-volume Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Of its some 2,000 entrants, just 25 are women (20 of whom were born before 1885). By contrast, Ogilvie, who worked essentially on her own in the extensive history of science collections at the University of Oklahoma, presents entries ranging from a few sentences to 8½ pages for more than nine times as many women, a striking 186!

The extent of coverage of a biographical dictionary is not trivial but economic—for it is costly to pursue and include minor figures— and quite political—for one does not have to be a historian to realize that once left out of a biographical dictionary, persons tend to be omitted from subsequent history and memory of their accomplishments essentially vanishes from sight and honor.

Despite America's late entry chronologically into the history of science, it has been uniquely well-served by previous reference works. Nevertheless, I had hoped to get beyond Ogilvie's now almost-familiar Americans to the still semi-obscure ones like Mary Griffith, who published articles on vision and halos in the 1830s, and Mary Treat, the New Jersey botanist who has never been included in any dictionary despite her work with Charles Darwin.

But Ogilvie's largest national group—the 80 Americans—is not her area of greatest contribution. Her great advance is in the area of European women scientists. Among those described are the many heretofore obscure Italian women of the 17th and 18th centuries, the 18th century English chemist Margaret Fuihame, and the many helpful, even indispensable wives whom the Dictionary of Scientific Biography left in their husbands' shadows.

In addition, Ogilvie's coverage is a little broader than the volume's title would suggest, for she includes women in such science-related roles as patronesses of science and scientists, translators, popularizers, collectors and illustrators. Also included are several inventors and physicians.

If the 20-page historical introduction and the nearly 200 biographical entries have a main theme, it is the central importance of women's access to education over the centuries. Time and time again the women depicted here are portrayed as struggling to gain access to books and educational institutions. The most dramatic of these was Sophie German, who used a man's name on her bluebooks and corresponded pseudonymously with the mathematicians Lagrange and Gauss.

It was not until the 19th century that any nation provided public education for women, and it was only because of the eventual admission of women to colleges and universities in the late 19th century that there were ever large numbers of women in science. The corollary for the 1980s may be that such victories are relatively recent—one can hardly be complacent about proposed cutbacks in student aid and soaring student indebtedness, which are serious issues for the future of women in science.

The price of this book is so nearly within the grasp of individuals that it would make a good gift: it is not only an attractive volume that will have a long life, it is so full of interesting details that simply browsing it is fun.

Rossiter is a National Science Foundation Visiting Professor of
the History of Science at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14850.

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