In March 2013, the New York Times published an obituary that began: “She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from work to raise three children. ‘The world’s best mom,’ her son Matthew said.”

Sweet, right?

The problem was the next sentence: “But Yvonne Brill . . . was also a brilliant rocket scientist.”


Infuriated readers began tweeting and blogging, and the newspaper quickly revised Brill’s obituary to put her scientific achievements in the first sentence. As Rachel Swaby writes in her introduction to “Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World,” that kerfuffle was part of what inspired this collection of brisk, bright biographies.

President Obama presents the National Medal of Technology to Yvonne C. Brill for innovation in rocket propulsion systems that greatly improved the effectiveness of space propulsion. (Win McNamee/GETTY IMAGES)

While it includes some famous women such as astronaut Sally Ride, the book is likely to introduce most readers to women they’ve never heard of. Entomologist Maria Sibylla Merian traveled from Europe to South America in the late 1600s and published “The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname” in 1705.

While annotating another scientist’s 1840s treatise on an “Analytical Engine,” mathematician Ada Lovelace produced a punch-card-based algorithm often described as the first computer program. Chemist Stephanie Kwolek invented Kevlar in 1964.

Because her research partner had died, physicist Rosalyn Sussman Yalow was in danger of not winning the Nobel Prize she deserved for her work on using radioactive isotopes to screen human tissue. (Because Nobel winners have to be alive, the question was whether she would get the award on her own. She did, in 1977.)

Oh, and don’t forget: Rocket scientist Yvonne Brill invented a propulsion system to keep communications satellites from falling out of their orbits.