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Guest writer: Did science kill her? by Helaine Becker

This post is written by Helaine Becker. Helaine is the bestselling author of more than 90 books for children and young adults, including the international bestseller Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (Henry Holt). She’s a multi-time winner of the Silver Birch Award and a two-time winner of the Lane Anderson Award for science writing for children. Her books have been translated into twelve languages and are sold in dozens of countries around the world. She lives in Toronto, Canada.


If you are like me – meaning – a Western-educated adult over the age of 35 – you probably grew up thinking there was only one female scientist – Madame Curie (she didn’t even get a first name). You also learned she was a freaky outlier and that doing science killed her.

That’s quite a ‘don’t try this at home’ lesson for little girls.

Maria Salomea Skłodowska Curie, however, was not the only woman doing science back in the day. There were hundreds of them. And most of them didn’t die prematurely as a result of their work.

Nevertheless, most were:

  • Ignored
  • Denigrated
  • Suppressed

And/or

  • Had their work stolen by colleagues.

I write children’s books, many of them science-related. I see my role as a ‘truth-teller’ – to share with kids the wonders of the world, and give them the straight goods on how they work. That said, it’s not enough for me to tell kids what we currently know. I also aim to tell them who did the discovering, and how.

Early in my career, I didn’t question the ‘who’. I ‘knew’ women never had the chance to do science (See: ignored, denigrated, etc.).

But then I stumbled over a story about Rosalind Franklin. (This was well before she was featured on posters; maybe 1990 or so).
I was shocked. I was supposed to be knowledgeable about science and science history. Yet I’d never heard her name.

I made it my mission to learn as much as I could about Franklin. And McClintock, and Herschel, Mitchell, and Tharp, and all of their multitudinous scientific sisters. I would write about them too.

While I was working on a book about space for National Geographic, I came across my ideal subject, Katherine Johnson. Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13 (subtitled How Katherine Johnson Put Astronauts on the Moon in the UK edition) tells the true story of a brilliant African-American mathematician who overcame both sexism and racism to play a pivotal role in the American space program. When I contacted her, asking her for her blessing on the project, there was virtually nothing written about her, for children or adults. The book Hidden Figures was not published until the following year.

I followed that first book up with a book about a pirate, and the most powerful pirate that ever lived (Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao).

Then, going back to science, I wrote Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You Never Heard Of. It tells the true story of a German-Jewish mathematician who fixed the flaw in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and then went on to discover an equally revolutionary aspect of the universe. When I began writing about Noether, there was almost nothing out there about her, either. As of this writing, there still isn’t.

Despite utterly different backgrounds, Johnson and Noether shared similar back stories. Incredible intellect. Schooling opportunities denied. Inability to make a living in their field.  Their work attributed to others, or not attributed at all. Yet Both Johnson and Noether persevered in the face of racism and sexism, and made huge contributions to their fields.

Of course my decision to write about these towering figures did not happen in a vacuum. Picture book biographies of female and minority STEM pioneers are currently being published at a rapid clip. So much so, you can call it a trend – hooray!

You can now find excellent children’s biographies about:

  • Wu Chien Shiung (Queen of Physics: How Wu Chien Shiung Helped Unlock the Secrets of the Atom)
  • Sophie Germain (Nothing Stopped Sophie)
  • Ada Lovelace (Ada Lovelace: Poet of Science)
  • Hedy Lamarr (Hedy Lamarr’s Double Life)
  • Maria Mitchell (What Miss Mitchell Saw)
  • Rae Montague (The Girl with a Mind for Math)
  • Eugenie Clark (Shark Lady)
  • Mary Anning (Mary Anning and the Sea Dragon)
  • Anna Atkins (The Bluest of Blues)
  • Mae Jemison (Mae Among the Stars)

And that’s just for starters.

These women’s stories are important for several reasons. One, they give ground-breaking STEM pioneers their long-overdue recognition. Not as desirable as a salary, or a Nobel Prize, but late-date fame is still better than disappearing into obscurity, don’t you think?

Secondly, their stories are inspirational. Young people need to know their lofty ambitions have a precedent. Many others have forged a path before them, in even more challenging circumstances. If others did it, so can they.
Third, they are inoculations against bias. I hear time and time again that books about women are ‘for girls’. Heck no. Newsflash – the majority of girls already know we can do amazing things! It’s the boys who need to have their foundational views shifted, so they don’t grow up to be sexist men.
Fourth, they provide ammunition against dream-squashing bigots.  You can now reach for a long-as-your-arm list of names to counter that snorting ‘women don’t do science’ smackdown (please feel free to hit aforementioned fools over the head with it).

Interesting final note. All of the authors of the books on the list above are also women. I’d put money on the editors who acquired them for their companies are women too.

In short, when women and minorities are at the table, no matter what the field, we bring a wider view. We ask different questions, and tell different stories. We make a difference.

So can you.

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