Marelene Rayner-Canham and Geoff Rayner-Canham. Chemistry Was Their Life: Pioneer British Women Chemists, 1800-1949. London: Imperial College Press (distributed by World Scientific Publishing Co. Singapore), 2008. xvii + 542 pp. $75, £41.
Reviewed by George B. Kauffman
Although historians have usually considered chemistry in Britain an exclusively male endeavor, since the 1880s British women have studied and contributed to academic chemistry. In their latest book on women scientists the Rayner-Canhams have drawn upon the published literature and various archives to present biographies of 141 of the 896 known British women chemists working from 1880 to 1949. The authors correct the imbalance promulgated by traditional historians by highlighting the role of British female chemists. They illustrate the determination of these women to survive and flourish in a maledominated environment, and they show the existence of an active culture of female chemists in Britain during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each of the 13 chapters concludes with a commentary. Unfortunately, no portraits are included, but doing so would have increased the price of the book. This volume will be of interest to historians of science, chemists, educators, persons concerned with women’s studies, and general readers.
Patrick Coffey. Cathedrals of Science: The Personalities and Rivalries That Made Modern Chemistry. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 400 pp. $29.95.
Reviewed by Ron Reynolds
Patrick Coffey traces the development of physical chemistry through the personalities and rivalries of its pioneers from Arrhenius to Pauling. P-chem was the “hot science” of the 1920s, analogous to today’s biotechnology or nanotechnology. Coffey presents frank and unvarnished portraits of those who unraveled the nature of the atom: the reclusive Gilbert Lewis, closeted with his handpicked students; friendly, outgoing Irving Langmuir and his lightbulbs; Walther Nernst’s popular German laboratory and his fierce competitive spirit; Fritz Haber’s vanity and the institutional consequences it produced. Some fairly long sections on key scientific concepts are quite technical. The non-chemist may prefer to skip these, but all readers can appreciate the human stories and frailties of the renowned chemists that Coffey depicts.
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