The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   76

Hypatia's Heritage

A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century

by Margaret Alic

Boston: Beacon Press, 1986

Sisters of the Lab

One of the sad truths about oppressed people is that they are, in fact, oppressed; they have fewer opportunities and lead more restricted lives than those who are not. It's striking and reassuring that so many people have done so much, despite being so heavily burdened, but those people are still outliers. Probably no identifiable human group has been more universally oppressed than women; and there are few activities which have been more associated with privilege than the systematic investigation of the natural world --- science, or what passed for it. For this reason, one can summarize the story of women scientists ``to zeroth order'' as follows: prior to the last half of the nineteenth century, there were no women scientists.

The first-order correction notices that there were a very small number of women who were allowed to participate in science --- or, sometimes, forced their way into a position in science. Like their male colleagues, they tended to come from the more privileged strata of society, i.e., the ones which afforded the necessary leisure for training and investigation; there are few horny-handed daughters of toil in this story. Their other characteristics are such as one might expect on general grounds: they were not of the absolutely first rank, meaning up there with Galileo and Darwin, because almost nobody is. Some were cranks; especially in the early days, a fair chunk of scientists were. Some were, by the grace of fortune, free of male caretakers. The others tended to have supportive male relatives, often scientists themselves, in which case contemporaries and historians were apt to give those relatives credit for the work of the women. (Female scientists are still much more likely than males to marry other scientists; I'm pretty sure we're better about credit these days.) In so far as one can generalize about such a small and oddly-selected sample, there is no common factor in their methods of work, favored ideas, or results which sets them apart from their male colleagues.

The second-order correction is that, at some times and places (principally western Europe during and after the Enlightenment), it was fairly fashionable for ladies to have some popularized knowledge of science, and to cultivate some kinds of nature study, like botany, as hobbies. These tended to be times and places where such accomplishments were also fashionable for non-scientific gentlemen. (It gave them something to talk about together, I suppose.)

Alic's book is mostly about the first-order correction, though she gives some attention to the second. (She notes that the some of the magazines catering to such tastes in 18th century England, for example, were founded by instrument makers, who used them as marketing vehicles.) The organization is chronological up to the onset of the scientific revolution, and then topical, covering medicine, natural history, astronomy and ``natural philosophy'' in the broad, 18th century use of the term. The last two chapters are on nineteenth century mathematicians and popularizers, respectively. Throughout, the approach is mostly biographical. The shibboleths of lumpen-feminist science studies --- alchemy as a kinder, gentler alternative to science; Bacon and Newton as the authors of rape manuals; women scientists less reductionist than men --- are all ignored. (It would be extremely odd if a working scientist, a molecular biologist no less, credited any of these.) Within her period and region (successively, the Hellenistic world, the Roman empire, and Latin Christendom --- pretty much what people mean by ``western civilization''), she's pretty comprehensive. The number of women scientists who've left any trace in the records whom she omits must be very small if not zero, and she takes ``scientist'' very broadly, including doctors and other medicos, alchemists, instrument-makers and natural philosophers. This approach could hardly be continued after the close of the nineteenth century, when women started to become scientists in significant (though still too small) numbers. Her generalizations are such as I've outlined above.

Alic is, as I said, a molecular biologist, not a professional historian, and this shows in places. Referencing is very spotty, though when she does give a source it's generally reputable and used fairly.There are some jarring anachronisms (sophists teaching ``mathematical logic'' [p. 25]; Ada Lovelace becoming ``engrossed in cybernetics'' [p. 160]). Her first chapter has an extended discussion of goddesses and heroines credited in mythologies (Mesopotamian, Egyptian or Greek) with connections to learning and various crafts, though this says nothing one way or the other about whether women had anything to do with them. (In Catholicism, at any rate up to 1969, the official patron saint of students, philosophers and clergy was Catherine of Alexandria, which doesn't mean that the Church thought women especially suited to those jobs.) In a few places, she exaggerates somewhat the significance of her subjects' work. Thus, pp. 120--1, speaking of the astronomer and engraver Maria Clara Eimmart, she says ``Maria used her engraving skills to depict comets, sunspots, eclipses and the mountains of the moon --- the observations that overthrew once and for all the `perfect and immutable heavens' of Aristotle.'' (Actually, Aristotle could cope with eclipses.) While there is nothing false in this statement, a casual or ill-informed reader (such as Alic is targeting) could well get the impression that Eimmart made those crucial observations; but she was born in 1676, when Galileo's books recording such phenomena had been published for decades. There is, finally, one really strange assertion (p. 21): ``Moses and his wife Zipporah probably studied medicine at Heliopolis about 1500 BC and Zipporah may also have attended the school at Sais.'' I can't believe that Alic just made this up, but she doesn't give any source for it, which is a shame, since it'd probably be very entertaining.

The bit about Moses and Zipporah is a unique lapse; otherwise, Alic's research is, as I said, both comprehensive and generally quite competent. The understandable temptation in such writings is to exaggerate the accomplishments and influence of one's subjects; there are very few places where Alic succumbs to this temptation, and the book is much better for it. It's probably best suited to scientists, to students taking basic history courses, and perhaps to encourage girls considering becoming scientists to persevere. (I do not mean the last slightingly.) I shudder to think how professional historians of science would evaluate this book.

x + 230 pp., 22 black and white illustrations, index of proper names.

Biography / Feminism / History of Science

Currently in print as a paperback, ISBN 0-8070-6731-8, US$15.50, LoC Q130 A48.
29 March 1999; thanks to Isa Bernardini.