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  • Writer's pictureKaroliina Pulkkinen

Jargonium Asks... a Book Interview: Women in the History of Science

Updated: Jan 22

Edited by Hannah Wills, Sadie Harrison, Erika Jones, Rebecca Martin, and Farrah Lawrence-Mackey, UCL Press.

In March 2023, a new sourcebook Women in the History of Science was published by UCL Press. The book is a joint effort that brings together no less than fifty two entries on primary source materials concerning the role of women in history of science. The entries, chronologically ranging from 1200 BCE to the present, are accompanied with introductory notes that ought to be helpful not only for research but especially for teaching. In what follows, two of the five editors of the book – Rebecca Martin and Farrah Lawrence-Mackey –answer Jargonium’s questions regarding the new sourcebook. The book is freely available digitally.  

1. How did the sourcebook project start? What prompted it?

We had been working as postgraduate teaching assistants in UCL’s Department of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and just found it quite frustrating, though entirely understandable, that all of the amazing work that scholars were doing in the department, the cutting-edge research and new approaches to STS, were not being reflected in the course materials we were teaching. We saw that, with overworked PGTA’s and lecturers, there just wasn’t the time or resources available for up-to-date survey courses in the history of science to be built. We talked a lot about how we could help with that, workshopping a bunch of different ideas.

We came to the idea of a sourcebook  as a partial solution to the problems of overwork and underpay in academia and the knock-on effect that has on the quality of courses that we can provide . We are hopeful that this tool can at least alleviate some of the pressures on early career academics.

2. Which chapters/sources would you recommend to someone interested in chemistry?

There are so many sources we think would be of interest to readers of Jargonium. In Part 1 alone, Eduardo Escobar explores the recipes of Tappūtī-bēlet-ekalle “history’s first chemist” and Vincenzo Carlotta examines an excerpt of Dialogue of the Philosophers and Cleopatra [the Alchemist]. Here Carlotta gives us a taste of this fascinating text ahead of his forthcoming publication of the full translation in Ambix Sources (due to appear in 2024/5). Frank James (current president of the Society for the History of Alchemy and Chemistry) has contributed two pieces, one on Lady Jane Davy and another on Rosalind Franklin. Another well-known figure - Kathleen Lonsdale - is considered by Ash Arcadian in relation to her relatively little-discussed religious views. Meanwhile, the final part of the book includes transcripts from the British Library’s ‘An Oral History of British Science’ project (including the chemist Charlotte Armah) and a recipe of unnamed origin. In including this recipe here, Catherine Price encourages us to question the distinction between cookery and chemistry in the present, in the same way that earlier chapters and sources expand what we consider to be science in the past. This last source in particular links nicely back to one of our earlier sources, contributed by Lucy Harvard, from Mary Chantrell’s book of receipts (chapter 3) which explores womens’ work in the kitchen and the home.

3. Which figure do you think has been neglected or needs more attention?

Women have been such an integral part of the history of science that it would necessarily take far more than just one volume to cover this topic for students! Beyond specific individuals, there are a number of whole areas in which work still remains to be done. In particular, we feel further globalisation of these source materials and including a focus on sexuality and gender identity would be important features for future works looking to expand on the start we have made in this volume. One of our wonderful reviewers has also highlighted the exclusion of library sciences here. We know there are already other things in the pipeline taking inspiration from this volume that might touch on these themes. We can’t wait to see the number of teaching resources on women in the history of science proliferate in the next few years.

4. How did you select the sources of the book?

Our selection process was primarily driven by our contributors who proposed entries for the book. However, we did find that, once the initial call had concluded, there were some topics, geographies, or time periods that were under-represented. At that point we began to solicit contributions from specific individuals, often through our own networks. Obviously, there are so many women that could be included in a work like this, and we hope that this is really just the first step in including more women in traditional history of science teaching. We’re not promising that we’ll produce a volume two, but there would definitely be enough material for one!

5. Apart from your huge range of contributors, there were five editors for this project. What did your writing process look like?

Writing as a collective has been such a supportive and positive experience, especially during the pandemic. Working with both our other co-editors, and our supportive networks of contributors, helped to keep this project moving when the world was on hold. In particular, having a team of five meant that when one of us was dealing with ‘life stuff’, the others were able to pick things up. Overall from conception to publication this book took 6 years to come together, for the editors this meant we had various job and house moves, serious illnesses, bereavements, and (as of September) two whole new humans! Life doesn't stop but, through the support of such a strong editorial team, we kept the work moving forward. Practically speaking, we worked mainly remotely via zoom and Google docs. Editing together was eye-opening and so much more fun than any of us find editing alone! We had what we affectionately termed ‘the sisterhood of the travelling chapter’, where the introduction and edited chapters would pass around the group to edit and re-edit in turn before we would come back together as a whole to review everything. Some of our editing team, who now hold roles outside of academia, said that when the book was finished they would finally be free of their academic past, but now it is over we all miss working collectively with this wonderful group of women!

6. What else would you want our readers to know about the book?

We really see this sourcebook as a starting point and a roadmap for future endeavours. We know that there is a lot of women’s history still to be condensed into a teaching format and we hope that others will take this concept and be inspired to build upon it to include an ever more diverse range of voices within our teaching.

Rebecca Martin (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, National Maritime Museum)

Farrah Lawrence-Mackey (Independent Scholar)

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