A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity


307 pages
Contains Photos, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-7735-1642-5
DDC 539.7'52'0922




Edited by Marelene F. Rayner-Canham and Geoffrey W. Rayner-Canham
Reviewed by Hannah Gay

Hannah Gay is a professor of history at Simon Fraser University in
British Columbia.


This book recounts something of the lives and scientific contributions
of a number of women— all born before 1900—who were connected with
research into radioactivity. While the Rayner-Canhams are the principal
authors, there are 10 other contributors. Together, they have done
useful work in returning the important research of those women
scientists to the historical record. The focus is on three groups,
working in France, Britain, and in Germany and Austria.

While Marie Curie and her daughter Irиne Joliot-Curie are well known,
little known is that many women flocked to Paris for an opportunity to
work in their institute. The authors mention about 10 of these, devoting
full chapters to a few, such as the Norwegian Ellen Gleditsch, an
important scientist in her own right. Even Catherine Chamié, who
devoted her whole working life to the Curie laboratory, has been largely
ignored in earlier histories.

Ernest Rutherford had several women working with him, as did Frederick
Soddy and J.J. Thomson. A chapter is devoted to Harriet Brooks, a
Canadian who worked with Rutherford, and who is already the subject of a
full biography by the Rayner-Canhams. Ada Hitchens, who was with Soddy
for many years, is another neglected yet important co-worker.

Among the German women, Lise Meitner is well known, but it is good to
read of her life from a sympathetic feminist perspective. Marietta
Blau—who began her working life in Vienna and ended it at Brookhaven
with the United States Atomic Energy Commission—is not as well known
as she deserves to be for her work with cosmic rays. She receives a
chapter here.

The editors, in thinking over the lives presented, come to the
conclusion that the first two decades of this century were something of
a mini–golden age for women scientists, though few who studied
radioactivity became well known, and fewer still are remembered. It is
claimed that science education for women was encouraged in the late 19th
and early 20th centuries, but that a chillier climate took over in the
interwar period. This book adds to the useful work the Rayner-Canhams
have already done in giving women their due.


“A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed May 27, 2024, https://cbra.library.utoronto.ca/items/show/29271.