Review Essay

The Original Hidden Figures

The Women Scientists Who Won the Great War

In This Review

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
By Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 2018, 304 pp. Purchase

In the center of many British towns stands a cenotaph, a memorial tomb honoring the native sons who gave their lives during World War I. Etched into the plinths, in between carved garlands and laurels, are the names and military ranks of the fallen. Additional rows list the soldiers and sailors lost in later conflicts. On Remembrance Day, November 11, the anniversary of the end of World War I, red silk poppies adorn the monuments in remembrance of these patriots’ sacrifices.

Unrecorded and unrecognized, much less inscribed in stone, is an entire class of patriots that British society has willfully forgotten over the past century: the women who gave their all for the war effort, including many who even gave their lives. Some used their muscles in mines and munitions factories. Some brought their medical expertise to the front. And some put their minds and scientific skills in the service of their country. A Lab of One’s Own, the latest book by the historian of science Patricia Fara, seeks to fill this gap in public memory by focusing on this last group, giving the female British scientists of the early twentieth century their rightful due.

Fara’s welcome and novel work goes beyond the familiar nurse-on-the-western-front accounts of pluck and patience that appear in many histories of the Great War. Instead, the book meshes two coinciding centenaries: the 1918 armistice that ended World War I and the law that gave British women, at least the older and wealthier among them, the right to vote that same year. As if conducting her own experiment, Fara places her heroines on the examining table and observes their responses to these historical stimuli.

Both events were jolts to British society, shaking up families, economies, and, as Fara reveals, laboratories. At great personal risk, female scientists took on the study of dangerous explosives, toxic chemicals, virulent diseases, and the unrecognized lethal effects of radioactivity. Simply pursuing a career in science was tough enough: whether at universities, in

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