Book review: Writing about women’s lives in science

An edited version of this book review appeared in the latest issue of British Journal for the History of Science (vol. 49, 2016, pp. 529-30).


Govoni, Paola, and Franceschi, Zelda Alice (eds.), Writing about Lives in Science: (Auto)Biography, Gender, and Genre. Goettingen: V&R Unipress, 2015. Pp. 287. ISBN. 978-3-8471-0263-2. €44.99 (hardback).

Biography within the history of science has repeatedly been rescued, revived and reconsidered: from Thomas Hankins’s 1979 ‘Defense of Biography’, to the essays in Telling Lives in Science (1996, eds. Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo), the 2002 workshop that led to The History and Poetics of Scientific Biography (2006, ed. Thomas Söderqvist), the 2006 ‘Focus’ section in Isis and now this collection. Many of those who have written biographies have been reflexive about their motivations and their version of their subject’s life and character. Richard Westfall, for example, produced some fascinating reflections for the 1985 collection Introspection in Biography, showing the wisdom of B.J.T. Dobbs’s comment that Newton is “something of a Rorschach inkblot test” for historians (Isis 85 (1994), 516). Those academic biographies of major figures have, after all, still been produced and, as Margaret Rossiter and Pnina G. Abir-Am led the way from the 1980s onward, so too have collections and considerations of lives of women scientists.

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PhD scholarship available in history of science (and more)

There are lots of opportunities available this year at the University of Kent’s School of History for anyone looking for funding for a Masters (taught or research) or PhD. See the funding opportunities page here.

Readers of this blog will be particularly interested in the funding available for the MA in History of Science, Medicine, Environment and Technology or MSc in Science, Society and Communication. As well as a dedicated £5000 scholarship students for the former can also apply for the full scholarship for MA study within the School.

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PhD scholarship in history of science

Is there anyone out there who would like to do a PhD in the history of science with me at the University of Kent? There is a scholarship available for just that – deadline 29 May. It will be based within the Centre for the History of the Sciences in the School of History.

Feel free to ask questions or discuss this further in the comments here, via email (address here) or @beckyfh on Twitter.

University of Kent 50th Anniversary Scholarship in the History of Science

The School of History is pleased to offer one 50th Anniversary PhD Research Scholarship beginning in September 2015. The successful candidate will be part of the Centre for the History of the Sciences and supervised by Dr Rebekah Higgitt. The proposed research must suit Dr Higgitt’s broad interests and, if appropriate, there would be the opportunity to be co-supervised by Dr Louise Devoy, Curator of the Royal Observatory Greenwich, and to make use of the object collections and other resources at Royal Museums Greenwich. Applications are particularly encouraged in the following areas:

  • History of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, and/or Royal Greenwich Observatory
  • Science and/or scientific training in the Navy, 17th-19th centuries
  • Museology and history of science
  • History of astronomy and observational sciences in the 17th-19th centuries
  • Scientific institutions and government funding in the 17-19th century
  • Science and the public in the 17th-19th centuries, including museums, publishing, performance, biography and satire

The deadline for receipt of applications eligible for this scholarship is 29 May 2015. Shortlisted applicants will be invited to a panel-led interview in June 2015.

For further details and application procedure see the listing at 

Edit: I should have clarified that the scholarship is open to UK, EU and overseas students. See the link above for further information and links.

Who’s missing in modern academia: solitary geniuses or something much more significant?

Cross-posted from The H Word blog, where this post first appeared on 10 December 2013.

1974 portrait of Isaac Newton as solitary genius.

When Peter Higgs, of Higgs boson fame, was quoted in the Guardian on Friday as saying “Today I wouldn’t get an academic job” because he would not “be regarded as productive enough”, it prompted much nodding and retweeting from academics.

Coming as it did on the tail of British academics’ rush to complete submissions to the REF (Research Excellence Framework), in a term that has seen two strikes over fair pay in Higher and Further Education and at a time when there are reports of long working hours and other pressure on academics affecting wellbeing , it is hardly surprising that there was sympathy toward Higgs’s negative judgement of today’s focus on “productivity” and publication.

When Higgs was quoted as saying “It’s difficult to imagine how I would ever have enough peace and quiet in the present sort of climate to do what I did in 1964”, many academics undoubtedly heaved a sigh and got back to the marking, teaching preparation, grant application, or whatever other non-research-related activity they were currently engaged in.

It seems, though, that Higgs’s comments struck a wider chord, perhaps because of the extent to which they conform to the stereotype of the solitary scientific genius. His “peace and quiet” of 1964 (aged 35) brings to mind Newton’s escape to his Lincolnshire family home in 1666 (aged 24), and it is contrasted in the article with “expectations on academics to collaborate and keep churning out papers”. This is the kind of thing we want to hear our science Nobel winners saying.

Teaching, which takes up a huge proportion of most academics’ time, is not mentioned in this piece. I have no idea what kind of a teacher Higgs was, but Isaac “lecture to the walls” Newton clearly would have been a flop on Rate my Professor and a liability for a university anxious about its position in the National Student Survey. He would probably have been just as problematic for REF. Although he was to go on to have a staggering impact (or Impact), Newton was famously, for much of his life, reluctant to publish.

In many ways Newton and his mythology became a model for how we think of genius, particularly in the physical sciences. Stories of his youthful moment of inspiration, his forgetfulness, his oddness, his solitariness and his immersion in his work abound. Yet he was also someone who learned not just from books but also from his Cambridge tutors and colleagues and wide correspondence, who made his approaches to the Royal Society with scientific papers and the gift of his reflecting telescope, and who went on to become an MP and to lead the Royal Mint and Royal Society.

Science is profoundly collaborative, relying on communication to peers and students, and collaboration with colleagues and a whole range of other “stakeholders”. It goes without saying that there have, always, been many people doing scientific work who not only put up with but also thrived on all those other activities. Science would not have developed without them.

While there are some, perhaps-justified, fears about modern academia effectively losing the insights of the next Newton, it’s worth recalling the circumstances in which many of the well-known figures in the history of science conducted their work. While they may not have been writing grant reports of marking exams, they were likely seeking patronage, carrying on journalistic careers, undertaking the duties of a doctor or a vicar, teaching, family business or otherwise making a – usually non-scientific – living.

Those who really were excluded were not solitary geniuses who could not find sufficient time for thinking, but those who were, as a result of class, geography, race or gender, never likely to have the opportunity to begin an education, let alone contribute to the established scientific societies and journals. And this affected the science that was done: ample research shows how the norms, assumptions and interests of elites have shaped supposedly value-free science.

Science and academia today remain embarrassingly homogeneous. However, the fear is not so much that we might be failing to find or support working class, black or female geniuses, but that we are more broadly missing out on other perspectives and experiences that would help frame different questions and solutions. It is for this – as well as the good health and useful productivity of academics – that we need to fight not just for better investment in Higher Education, supporting excellent outreach and teaching as well as research, but for a fairer society.