Women in science bookshelf

This page was originally created May, 1997, and has been updated sporadically since, but has been superceded by more modern forms of accumulating and annotating books.

Contemporary fiction

Novels with a contemporary setting in which a major character is a female scientist, and her work is central to the story of the novel. The distinction between this and the next category is somewhat artificial, but mysteries tend to come in series, and, of course, tend to appear more often in the ‘mysteries’ shelf of the bookstore or library.

Brazzaville Beach. William Boyd, 1990.
After the suicide of her manic-depressive husband, Hope Clearwater becomes involved in a project observing chimpanzees in Africa. Her observations of murderous and warlike behaviour directly contradict her eminent supervisor’s thesis that apes, unlike humans, do not engage in deliberate slaughter of their own.
Minus Time. Catherine Bush, 1993
Barbara Urie, a passionate and accomplished medical scientist, is the “first Canadian mother in space”, according to the press publicity which accompanies her departure for a long stay aboard an orbiting space station. The story of her quest and her troubled mission is told through the viewpoint of her daughter Helen who both protests her mother’s desertion and seeks self-definition by joining a radical environmentalist movement. There’s an uncomfortable hint of anti-science in the use of the ‘science as cause of human alienation’ motif, though.
Cantor’s Dilemma. Carl Djerassi, 1989.
Central focus is the student/mentor relationship between Cantor and his student Jeremy Stafford–and its breakdown over the possibility of fraud in the experiment which earned Cantor and Stafford the Nobel Prize. I feel it was in an almost sociological spirit that Djerassi included Celestine Price, to explore the variations: Celestine had an affair with one of her tutors, but she and her Ph.D. supervisor, Jean Ardley, are free of the kind of umbilical attachment Celly perceives between Stafford and Cantor.
The Bourkaki Gambit. Carl Djerassi, 1994.
Four elderly scientists, three men and a woman, deemed over-the-hill by the institutions which have until now supported them, come together to continue to work under a pseudonym. When they make a major discovery, the force of ego begins to test the bounds of collaboration and anonymity.
Saving St. Germ. Carol Muskes Dukes, 1993.
Esme Charbonnea may be considered a genius, if the world allows genius in a woman. Or she may be considered mad. A chemist and fantasist, she deconstructs the world around her into its constituent atoms, leading her towards the formulation of a ‘Theory of Everything’. She also has a little daughter, much like herself, and finds herself fighting not only for recognition of her genius but for her daughter’s life and spirit.
Recombinations, Perri Klass, 1985.
Anne Montgomery is a bright young twentysomething working in a Manhattan laboratory. The novel concentrates more upon her personal relationships and those of her friends, but does glance upon the complexities of being an individualistic woman (with reservations about her friend Charlotte’s feminism) working amongst male networks and rivalries.
Three Times Table. Sarah Maitland, 1990.
Rachel Petherington is a seventy-four year old paleontologist. On the eve of recognition and reward for a lifetime’s support of Darwinist evolution, she finds herself being persuaded by rival theorists. Her daughter, Phoebe, a gifted mathematician and her father’s protege, renounced the selfish absorption of intellectual life when her father died and now works as a gardener.
The Falling Woman. Pat Murphy, 1986.
An archeologist, Elizabeth Butler, with the ability to see the spirits of the past, is joined on a dig at a Mayan ruin by the daughter she abandoned years ago. She is also haunted–to the point of possession–by the spirit of a Mayan woman who sacrificed her own daughter to the Gods.
Small Changes. Marge Piercy, 1972.
1960s setting. One of the two main protagonists, Miriam Berg, is a computer scientist. Professionally, she does not survive the collision between her own isolated, human-centred viewpoint, and the military-industrial complex. A minor character, Dorine, is slowly transformed from the sad concubine and convenience to a succession of men to an activist biochemist. Piercy is consistently interested in the human consequences of science and technology; science is usually present in the background of her work.
The Naturalists: a botanical novel (Published in the US as Letters from Yellowstone). Diane Smith, 1999.
Spring of 1898, and the rather unworldly Prof. H.G. Merriam is pleased to accept one “A. Bartram” – scion of an illustrious naturalist family – sight unseen as a member of a field study to Yellowstone National Park. To his consternation, “A. Bartram” turns out to be a single-minded young woman who sees no reason why her sex or Victorian convention should stand in her way of pursuing her passion for natural history.
Coachella. Shiela Oritz Taylor, 1998.
1983 in the Coachella valley, and unlikely people — hemophilacs and the face-lifted and liposuctioned wealthy — are dying of a mysterious new disease which looks very like AIDS. Phlebotomist Yolanda Ramirez starts to wonder whether the blood supply is safe — but who will listen to a lowly technician?
The Clewiston Test. Kate Wilhelm, 1976.
A biomedical researcher, Anne Clewiston, has discovered and purified an innate pain suppressant. The product has just received approval for human testing when test chimpanzees develop psychotic symptoms. Anne, convalescent after a serious car accident, may have used it on herself; she cannot remember. Faced with her questioning of the power-dynamics in their marriage, her husband comes to believe she has.
Leaning Towards Infinity Sue Woolfe, 1998.
Three generations of women gifted in mathematics. Juanita is forced to put marriage and motherhood before mathematics and goes mad, leaving behind a fragmentary and incomplete theorem. Eccentric and marginalized, Frances realises her mother’s work, and incurs the resentment of her own daughter Hypatia. I found it poetic, well-researched and exasperating in its portrait of female masochism and victimization.
The Trouble with Lichen. John Wyndham, 1960.
One of my early heroines was the gorgeous, wily Diana Brackley, who contrives to introduce her discovery of a substance which prolongs life as an elite beauty treatment.

Mysteries and Thrillers

Women doing the science (and the investigating) …

Postmortem Patricia D. Cornwell.
This was the first of multiple novels featuring Dr. Kay Scarpetta, forensic pathologist and medical examiner. Newly appointed, Scarpetta finds herself investigating a torture-killer whose first victim is a young woman doctor. It kept me checking windows for several days afterwards, and is still my favourite of P.D. Cornwell’s, not least because of the lucid, accurate and unsparing explanation of DNA forensics Kay gives a journalist ally. The series has become noticably grimmer and darker as the years passed, as the constant battle against violence and corruption claims lovers and friends alike and leaves Kay increasingly hardened and battlescarred. No less scarred is Kay’s young niece, Lucy, a brilliant young FBI agent outcast from her profession on account of her lesbianism and early seduction by the psychotic Carrie Grethren, Kay’s nemesis over several novels.
White Eye Blanche D’Alpuget
Set in Australia and Indonesia. A woman molecular biologist working at an isolated research establishment is found murdered. Everyone assumes the murder resulted from her sexual misdemeanors, including her cousin, Diana, an ornithologist and wildlife activist investigating the illegal import of chimps for research purposes. The two crimes turn out to be connected, but even by the end, Diana does not fully apprehend the nefarious plot she brushed up against and inconvenienced but did not stop.
Principal Investigation. B.B. Jordan, 1997.
Celeste Braun is appalled to learn that her mentor, Jane Stanley, has been accused of scientific fraud, but that palls before the emergence of a mutant form of the lethal virus Jane Stanley had worked on, one resistant to the cure. Both are part of an intricate scheme for revenge and profit perpretrated by a vengeful former subordinate. One of the lively secondary characters is John “Mac” Macmillan, Celeste’s student — ex-Vietnam vet, gardener and part time student of immunology.
The Bullrush Murders: A Botanical Mystery. Rebecca Rothenberg, 1991
The Dandilion Murders Rebecca Rothenberg.
The Shy Tulip Murders Rebecca Rothenberg.
Microbiologist Claire Sharpless deserted MIT for the San Joaquin Valley, California. Prickly, persistent and unlucky in love — the last in part because of the first two — her fieldwork leads her to become embroiled in the politics of the area, and when politics turns murderous, her particular expertise becomes key to solving the mysteries.
Lightsource. Bari Wood, 1984.
A thriller, set in the America of the very near future (1990). Emily Brand is an inoclastic physicist who develops a viable fusion reactor. She threatens the monopoly of the monolithic power corporation which essentially controls America, is framed for murder, and takes off across country with the psychotic heir to the corporation and his accomplices in pursuit. Emily is a thinking woman’s heroine, with a genius for strategy – an antidote to all these females on TV who inevitably drop their car keys as the villain closes in upon them.

Women doing the investigating (of the science) …

Lethal Genes Linda Grant
Cold Steal Carole Spearin McCauley


Science Fiction

I have resisted including this as a separate section, because it has the potential to grow like the Blob. But if I don’t, I don’t get to put some of my favourite books in.

The Rains of Eridan, H.M. Hoover, 1977.
A juvenile SF novel, but with one of my favourite female scientists. Theodora Leslie, a biologist on a solitary field trip on the newly explored world Eridan, witnesses the murder of the expedition leaders and becomes protector of their orphaned daughter Karen. Almost all the members of the expedition have been affected by an irrational fear, which Theodora and Karen discover is caused by a unique feature of Eridan ecology.
The Rose. Charles Harness, 1953.
In this one, the women get all the best parts, even if the woman scientist’s is villainous. Anna van Tuyl, psychologist, dancer and composer, embodiment of art and evolution, battles Martha Jaques, embodiment of science and stasis, for the body and soul of Martha’s husband Ruy, and the future of humanity itself. Both Anna and Guy are undergoing a transformation into a different form of humanity, a transformation which will never take place if Martha solves the Sciomnia (the name says it all) equations.


Honourable mentions …

These books don’t fit all the criteria, but deserve a mention …

The Reconstruction, Claudia Casper, 1996.
After the disintegration of her marriage — to a doctor who made plain he found her body repulsive — Margaret’s self-regard is in ruins. A sculptor, she is hired by a museum to reconstruct an early human woman. As she reconstructs the model of ‘Lucy’, she reconstructs herself.
Snakes and Ladders, Penelope Farmer, 1991.
This book does not have a major woman scientist, but it has a woman observer of science and scientists. Anna is a journalist and the second wife of one of the principal investigators on a major international epilepsy project; she documents the work and interactions of the scientists and their subjects.
Animal Dreams Barbara Kingsolver, 1990.
Again not about a woman scientist, but the writer is a biologist by training, and it shows. The main character is a failed doctor, a drifter, who has drifted home to tend to her remote, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father. One of her major sorrows is healed by the yellowing manuscript of an old genetics paper written by her father, which finally resolves the question of her own origins.
An Accomplished Woman Nancy Price, 1979.
The title comes from a quotation by Mary Wollstonecraft, ‘Adject as this portrait appears, it is the portrait of an accomplished woman.’ Catherine Buckingham is raised ‘without a net’ by her open-minded entymologist uncle, allowed to explore freely and develop her own interest in the natural world and in science. But it is the late 1930s and when her uncle goes missing and is presumed dead in the War and Catherine must leave her sheltered home for college, she is utterly unprepared for the assault of conventional assumptions and expectations about woman’s role and capacities.
The Queen’s Gambit Walter Tevis, 1983.
Not a book about genius in science but one about genius in chess. I warm to it because it is completely accepting of its protagonist’s right to her genius and its expression in a way that too many novels, both by men and by women, aren’t. It is the story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, raised in an orphanage in the 1950s. Scarred by her loveless upbringing and fighting an addiction to benzodiazepines (which the children were given in the orphanage to ‘even out their dispositions’), she nevertheless rises through the ranks of American chess and goes on to challenge the dominant Russian establishment.

Non-Fiction about Women in Science

Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome. Eileen M. Byrne, 1993.
Why is there a steady attrition of women students of science? Is it because, as common belief holds, women students need women mentors? Or is it due to the hostile instutional environment? Byrne’s data shows the later; she believes that the insistence on individual mentoring burdens women while allowing institutions to avoid making necessary changes.
Women In Science. Portraits from a World in Transition. Vivian Gornick, 1983.
The first book I ever found exclusively on the subject, it is as the subtitle says, a collection of portraits, with linking commentary, of women scientists in all fields. This book gives a sense of the diversity of individuals working in science, their opinions, life choices, and straight or convoluted routes to where they are today.
Women Changing Science. Voices from a Field in Transition. Mary Morse, 1995.
Ten years on, what has changed and what not.
Hypatia’s Heritage. Margaret Alic. 1986.
A History of Women in Science, from antiquity, through the story of Hypatia of Alexandria, Trotula and the ladies of Salerno, Hildegarde of Bigen, the scientific ladies of the seventeenth century, the woman astronomers, chemists, mathematicians and naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and finally the consequences of the institutionalization and professionalization of science.
Counting Girls Out. Valerie Walkerdine, 1989.
Results of ten years research by the Girls and Mathematics Unit of the University of London Institute of Education, examining the evidence for the assumptions made about girls’ capacities in mathematics. For both genders, those assumptions distort evaluations – girls are taken to be lacking in understanding even when they perform well, and boys are credited even for a poor performance. These distortions serve neither gender, excluding capable girls from the field, and denying boys needed remediation.

Other sources

  • Stealing the Fire: Women Scientists in Fiction, an essay written by myself discussing some of these novels, originally published online 5 February 1999 at HMS Beagle.
  • See also the Women in Science Bibliography, one of the Wisconsin Bibliographies in Women’s Studies, from the University of Maryland, Part 1 and Part 2
  • For fiction and non-fiction about women in medical science, see the The Literature and Medicine Database created by Felice Aull at New York University.