Tag Archives: women in science

“The Woman Who Smashed Codes – A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine Who Outwitted America’s Enemies” by Jason Fagone

This book was recommended to me by someone who said she couldn’t put it down, that it made her cry. I was equally entranced.

The life history of Elizebeth (sic) Smith Friedman (1892 – 1980) was an example of truth being stranger (and WAY more interesting) than fiction.

This is one of the “lost” stories of recent American history.

We are now, finally, as decades pass and TOP SECRET ULTRA documents from World War II are declassified, learning what our relatives/ancestors were doing during World War II. My family is turning up some surprises. Has this happened to you? Do you need to ask your grandparents (quickly!) for the whole story?

The book Code Girls by Liza Mundywas an excellent example of this.                                                                                                                     I blogged about it on December 2, 2017.

What made Elizebeth Smith Friedman’s life more interesting than fiction? Elizebeth was so entirely self made! She was the youngest of nine children growing up on an Indiana farm, and was only the second of them to go to college. Her unsupportive father loaned her the money, and charged interest. She majored in literature and studied several languages, then worked briefly as a high school principal.

One crucial, strikingly odd (and sometimes threatening) character in Elizebeth’s life was George Fabyan, a rich eccentric who patronized and cultivated an eclectic coterie of scientists and other intellectuals, many of whom lived at his Riverbank Estate outside Chicago.

At Riverside Estate, Elizebeth met William F Friedman, also a Fabyan protégé. The two were married in 1917. Friedman had studied agriculture (at my alma mater, Michigan State University!) and later genetics, at Cornell.

Fabyan employed Smith as a literary researcher and code breaker and Friedman as a plant geneticist.

Elizebeth and William developed into groundbreaking cryptographers. The science of code breaking had barely been invented when they began to work together. Cryptanalysis is a science, but also a highly intuitive endeavor. Success depends on the ability to see patterns in letters, words or numbers that appear random. After World War I, during Prohibition, Elizebeth broke codes used by criminal bootleggers and rumrunners, and testified against notorious mobsters in court. This brought her a measure of  public attention.

World War II raised the stakes on cryptanalysis. Successful code breaking contributed greatly to the Allied victory. WHAT IF THE US AND GREAT BRITAIN HAD NOT BOTH BROKEN ENEMY CODES AND KEPT THEIR INTELLIGENCE CAPABILITIES SECRET?? This book caused me to wonder what my life would have been like if the Allies had lost WW II. Would I have grown up in an occupied country? How long would Facism have persisted? Was the Cold War inevitable? The nuclear arms race?

Ironically, during World War II Elizebeth and William worked in different military agencies and were prohibited from discussing their assignments with each other. Loneliness was added to the other terrible wartime stresses they faced. William suffered from “nerves” (probably depression) at a time when little professional/medical help was available. Elizebeth “covered” for him and went to extremes to protect, support and encourage him. They loved each other devotedly for 52 years, until William died in 1969.

After WW II, Elizebeth received much less attention than William. Only recently have historians paid serious attention to Elizebeth’s incredible genius and military contributions.

Read this book! I predict it will be one of your favorites.

Advertisements

“The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady” by Edith Holden.

Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977. 176 pages, plus species lists.

This book is a gem! It is a full color facsimile reproduction, notable for both artistry and scientific accuracy. Edith Holden was known in her lifetime as an illustrator of children’s books. Decades after she died in 1920, a relative showed her “diary” for the year 1906 (which was intended as a teaching tool) to a publisher, who released it in 1977. The book is a combination of field observations (she walked many miles!), the author’s favorite poems and sayings, and beautiful, detailed paintings of insects, birds and flowers.

A second book of Holden’s field notes (The Nature Notes of an Edwardian Lady) was published in 1984.

I took a careful look at Holden’s entries for the month of May. The month begins with a detailed painting of a chaffinch’s nest with eggs, surrounded by hawthorn blossoms and wild hyacinths.

One of the mottoes listed is “Change not a clout till May be out”. I think this means “keep your winter cloak handy”. Good advice! On May 16, Holden reports cold north wind, thunder and HAIL. She went out none-the-less, and found a thrush’s egg that had been blown to the ground.

Holden includes poems by Wordsworth, Spenser, ap Gwillym and Ingelow among her May entries. There are numerous paintings.

This lovely book would make a fine gift for any nature lover, or a treat for when you want to savor poetry and art at the same time.

“Chrysalis – Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis” by Kim Todd

Published by Harcourt, Inc. 2007. 282 pages. Includes both black/white and color plate reproductions of Merian’s artwork.

This book addresses several of my favorite subjects – nature, science, history and artand the role of women in all of the above! Add to this that the writing is clear and lively, and it’s an all around winner.

Maria Sibylla Merian lived from 1647 to 1717. She was born into a family of printers and artists, and had unusual opportunities for education and training in art. She was a type of child still recognizable today, one totally fascinated by insects! (I meet many such children in various settings and at various ages. How I wish they could all be thoroughly “indulged” in their passion!)

If you investigate Merian on line, you will find many more of her pictures than pictures of her. Her artwork is stunning – colorful, detailed, lifelike and comprehensive, often including all the life stages of a moth or butterfly, plus associated plants.

One unusual feature of her life story is that Merian spent six years living in the “cloistered” religious community of a radical Protestant sect called Labadists or pietists. Merian’s half brother joined the group and a community was established near his remote country manor in Friesland (Netherlands). Merian continued her scientific study and artwork during her time with the pietists.

Returning to the secular world, Merian further established herself as an artist and scientist, then (at age 52) left Europe for an extended stay in Surinam, to continue her studies. After two years, malaria forced her to return home.

I don’t know whether Kim Todd considers herself a biographer or a nature writer. This book combines the two seamlessly, and I found it intelligent and entertaining.

“The Signature of All Things: A Novel” by Elizabeth Gilbert

Yes, this is the book that threatened me with “literary flu” (see December 17 blog post.) I bravely fought off my burning desire to read instead of going to work. I even managed to make this wonderful, absorbing book last six days!

This book is the story of a American life, from birth in 1800 to very old age.

Some pluses… It’s about a woman’s life. Much of it takes place near Philadelphia. Although none of the characters is actually a Quaker, Quakerism is given its due as an aspect of Philadelphia society. Abolitionism also plays a part.

But fundamentally, this is a book about the study of nature, especially plants. Alma Whittaker was the daughter of a man who grew plants, sold plants and supported the study of plants, with the emphasis on their medicinal qualities. He became fabulously rich in the process. Alma grew up surrounded by scientists (they called themselves natural philosophers) and businessmen of all sorts. Female role models were in short supply, but Alma, perhaps because she had no brothers, was encouraged to be intellectually bold.

Elizabeth Gilbert creates a memorable protagonist in Alma Whittaker and then surrounds her with intense, surprising characters. There’s Prudence, who turns up one dark night and is adopted as Alma’s sister. She sheds her background of poverty and ignorance and grows up to be a dedicated abolitionist. There’s a man named Tomorrow Morning, who loses his entire family, selects a new father and builds a new, rich life. Gilbert even manages to make a dog named Roger into a memorable character. (I don’t usually pay much attention to dogs, in life or in fiction.) Not every character is benign. The peripheral Mr. Yancey is mysterious and very dangerous.

Another “plus” from my point of view is that several characters in this book are Dutch and some of the story takes place in Netherlands, a country I for which I have a decided soft spot.

This book celebrates the beauty of nature and the JOY of studying nature. Neither is sufficiently appreciated here and now. Other types of intellectual activity are also lifted up – the study of languages, for example. Our heroine speaks four languages, plus Greek which she regards as a special treat. She undertakes to learn an Asian language under challenging circumstances.

One criterion of an excellent book is that it encourages you to read more, and not just work by the same author. This book led me to think about reading Darwin, The Origin of Species and The Descent of Man in particular. I tend to think of myself as well informed on the subject of evolution. I hang around with biologists and experts in related sciences, but no, I have not read Darwin, though his books and many commentaries thereon are around the house. I envision reading Darwin as a project that might take years! I wonder if that’s true.

I have intentionally written this post without looking at the reviews of others, or even checking on Ms. Gilbert’s other published works. A few years ago, I read her two non-fiction books, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. The first was good enough, the second (to use a culinary turn of phrase) disagreed with me. I never expected The Signature of All Things to be so very marvelous.