December 2010

Colleen Mondor


The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie des Jardins

I am eternally bemused by the absolute lack of science history I was taught in school -- from junior high with the abysmal “Earth Science” in a dark dank room where even volcanos managed to be dull, all the way up to college where actual field trips to one of the fossil capitals of the world was equally, mind numbingly, forgettable. Every science class I took was about rote memorization followed by regurgitation of facts. The labs were even more pathetic -- everyone cheated and got the same answers except for those occasional moments in tenth grade chemistry where my lab partner, Debbie Corradino, and I nearly set the room on fire. I have learned to accept my deficiencies in the area of science history, however I was pretty shocked recently by how very much I do not know while reading Julie Des Jardins’s thoroughly engaging The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. You would have thought my Brit Lit instructor would have at least shared the Ada Lovelace/Lord Byron connection during one of those endless analyses of “She Walks in Beauty” but no such luck. Happily Des Jardins is here to enlighten on all the female scientists we likely have heard little or nothing about and she does it with style and panache and no small amount of incredulity that these women could still possibly be unknown.

Following a chronological narrative, the author groups together scientists of certain eras and subjects such as Marie Curie, Lillian Gilbreth and the “Women of the Harvard Observatory,” among others, in a section entitled “Assistants, Housekeepers, and Interchangeable Parts: Women Scientists and Professionalization, 1880-1940” or Barbara McClintock, Evelyn Fox Keller, Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey (and others) under “American Women and Science in Transition 1962 - ." In between is one hundred pages on the “Cult of Masculinity in the Age of Heroic Science” which includes the Manhattan Project and Rosalind Franklin, the critical but, at the time, unheralded member of the team who discovered the structure of DNA. In each case Des Jardins provides intimate details of the lives of women who immersed themselves in various scientific fields and pursuits but then were all too often dismissed, ignored or in some cases nearly erased from the historic record. The reasons varied from cultural norms of the time to traditional battles over fame and power. Regardless, we have been presented with a vastly skewed version of the history of science, something Des Jardins is determined to change.

Some of the names she presents will be familiar to readers, such as Gilbreth who achieved some pop culture fame after Myrna Loy portrayed her in the 1950 film about her family Cheaper By the Dozen. (The Steve Martin remake has nothing to do with the Gilbreths.) As De Jardins explains, Gilbreth was a critical part of her husband’s work in industrial engineering and she continued to do significant work in the years after his death. Gilbreth has often been underappreciated however because much of her accomplishments lay in the realm of so-called “women’s work.” As the author explains, Gilbreth believed that “scientific management and homemaking were not antithetical.” She worked for practical kitchen design considering everything from appliance placement to counter and stool heights. With the public embracing HGTV and all tenets of interior design today, it is hard to imagine a world in which someone would be considered a revolutionary for actually taking the time to see what worked best in housework. But Gilbreth did (she also conducted the first consumer surveys on sanitary napkins, god bless her), and her work has had an enormous impact on how we live today.

From Gilbreth, Des Jardins continues to the unheralded astronomers at the Harvard Observatory. Wilhelmina Fleming worked as a secretary during the day and conducted variable-star work at night. “In 1903, after regular working hours, she classified and took light measurements for more than thirty-five hundred stars.” Fleming’s salary in 1900 was fifteen hundred dollars a year; male assistants received twenty-five hundred. Trying always to find ways to work harder, earn more, and discover more, she never let up. “Ceaselessly,” writes Des Jardins, “she continued until 1911, when, by all accounts, she had worked herself to death.” The newspapers of the day and her co-workers extolled her virtues and yet no one questioned the fact that she was compensated so much less than those who worked fewer hours or that all but two of her papers were published under her [male] supervisor’s name.

With every turn of the page Des Jardins introduces another woman who made huge contributions to science and yet still remains widely unknown. She also delves into other interesting gender politics such as how the widowed Marie Curie’s love affair with a younger married man was cause for international concern whereas married Albert Einstein was comfortably able to father a child out of wedlock and leave his wife with little public attention. There was a gender-based double standard even among Nobel Prize winners.

As she moves through time and discipline, Des Jardins discusses work and love, motherhood and family, fame and obscurity. Each brief biography builds on those that came before as comparisons are made between different women and different eras and events of the past are called upon to explain those in future decades. All of these women are fascinating and their contribution to some of the greatest scientific and engineering achievements of our time can not be overstated. Her scholarship alone would be worthy of our notice (and the copious source notes are much appreciated) but it is the engaging style of The Madame Curie Complex that truly makes it sing. We are almost programmed from a young age to find science dull -- we drift from the fun of doing to the desolation of memorizing all too too quickly. Des Jardins provides hundreds of little insights into the women she writes about, dozens of things that make us pause and ponder and question all that we have learned and everything we’ve overlooked. She doesn’t tell us we must know about these women; she makes us delighted to learn about them. I’m tempted to say I wish I had learned all of this in school but really that  doesn’t matter. I know it all now and, more importantly, I am eager to learn more.

The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science by Julie Des Jardins
Feminist Press
ISBN 978-1558616134
293 pages