Women Doing It All: Science to Literature by Pendred Noyce
In researching two books about remarkable and colorful women of science, I have run across a number who moved smoothly between science and writing. For these women, especially those who grew up in the early years of science, there were no artificial lines dividing one kind of creativity and learning from another.
Louise Bourgeois Boursier was a self-taught midwife of the sixteenth century who gained the confidence of the court and delivered the queen’s children, including the future Louis XIII. After assisting at two thousand births, she decided to share her hard-earned wisdom in a book, claiming proudly to be “the first woman practicing my art to pick up the pen.” Her book is hard to find, but you can get a good sense of her feisty style in this article, especially on page 155, where she defends herself against doctors who accused her of malpractice leading to the death of a princess.
Other women branched out to write about more than their science. Émilie Du Châtelet is famous for being Voltaire’s lover as well as a physicist of renown. She wrote an early physics textbook and was the first to translate Newton’s Principia into French, but she also translated literary works, wrote her own book on love and friendship, and even penned a scathing critique of the church which she wisely circulated only to a few friends. Du Châtelet herself is the subject of a fine play by Lauren Gunderson called Émilie la Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight that mixes physics, love, philosophy and drama.
Sophie Kovalevskaya eloped with a man she barely knew so she could escape Russia and pursue her studies in mathematics. She became a private student of the famous mathematician Karl Weierstrass, and in 1874 she became the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate in mathematics. Sophie’s sister Anya was a novelist, and in her thirties, Kovalevskaya began writing too. The easiest of her works to find is her autobiographical novel The Nihilist Girl, which tells of growing up as a skeptic and idealist in a Russia that was hesitantly instituting social reforms.
Today there are many women who write about science with an engaging literary style. One of my favorites is Natalie Angier. Her books include Natural Obsessions, about the search for cancer genes; The Beauty of the Beastly, about love and death in the plant and animal kingdoms; The Canon, a dizzying tour of the basics in many different fields of science; and Woman, whose topic I bet you can figure out for yourself. The only complaint some readers have about Angier is that she writes too richly, with flowery phrases and lots of metaphor. But she’s certainly fun to read.
As someone who has oscillated for years between a love of science and a love of writing, it has been a privilege to spend time among these women. They remind us of the joys of the mind playing across a variety of landscapes.
Pendred Noyce has been a physician and advocate for science education. She is the author of the award-winning Lexicon fantasy series for brainy middle-grade students and a number of books in the Galactic Academy of Science adventure series from Tumblehome Learning. Her book Magnificent Minds: Sixteen Remarkable Women of Science and Medicine is scheduled for publication March 1.
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