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Science, Women and Revolution in Russia (review)

From: Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Volume 75, Number 4, Winter 2001
pp. 802-803 | 10.1353/bhm.2001.0204

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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 75.4 (2001) 802-803

Book Review

Science, Women and Revolution in Russia

Ann Hibner Koblitz. Science, Women and Revolution in Russia. Women in Science. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 2000. xv + 211 pp. $48.00; £32.00; E 50.00 (90-5702-620-1).

Ann Hibner Koblitz writes about the outstanding role of Russian women in nineteenth-century science: they were the first university-trained women physicians, and the first women in the world to receive their doctorates in chemistry, physiology, and mathematics. Koblitz is an expert in the history of Russian women scientists. In 1983 she published a biography of the mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaia (1850-91); in writing her new book, she extends her research on Kovalevskaia and includes the stories of other Russian women in science, who were friends and contemporaries of the great mathematician. At the same time, she tries to answer the main question of her book: "What special combination of circumstances made the sciences particularly attractive and welcoming to women of the Russian Empire?" (p. xi).

In discussing this question, the author relies primarily on published memoirs and studies by other (mainly English-speaking) historians, and concentrates on those topics which can help to answer it. She begins her study with an overview of the revolutionary generation of Russian intellectuals during the 1860s and explains how the "progressive" ideas of this "nihilist" generation valued science as the most effective means of helping the masses to achieve a better life. She shows how these ideas influenced women of the intelligentsia, who learned medicine and the sciences abroad in order to acquire "weapons for social activism" (p. 17).

As case studies, Koblitz uses the famous stories of Kovalevskaia, the first woman in modern times to receive a doctorate in mathematics (in 1874); Nadezhda Suslova (1843-1918), the first Russian woman to obtain a doctoral degree in medicine from Zurich University; Maria Bokova-Sechenova (1839-1929), who received two doctoral degrees in medicine and physiology; Iulia Lermontova (1846-1919), the first woman with a doctorate in chemistry; and Anna Evreinova (1844-1919), who received her doctorate in jurisprudence from Leipzig University in 1873. The author shows how the relationships of women scientists with their male colleagues (such as Mendeleev, Sechenov, and Borodin), who shared the progressive ideas of the nihilist generation, helped women to shape their own identity as scientists. At the same time, according to Koblitz, different lifestyle experiments, such as complex marital and communal living arrangements among the nihilist intellectuals, contributed to the scientific orientation of the Russian women as well. After a brief description of these women's participation in the popularization of science among the Russian population, the author then drops the theme of science, women, and revolution.

Koblitz dedicates her longest chapter to her favorite subject, a historiography of Sofia Kovalevskaia, and explains how perceptions of a woman scientist could be distorted by succeeding generations of scholars. Having seemingly lost interest in the main question of her book, she devotes her entire attention to polemics with the "feminist/postmodernist" historians and spends thirty pages criticizing the "myths and stereotypes" of these historians who assumed that women "naturally prefer the humanities and have more talent for them than for sciences" (p. 148). During this criticism she again comes back to her story of the Russian women scientists, but unfortunately she does not elaborate her subject further, and her main question is left without an answer.

As it turns out, the title of this book is misleading. Koblitz tries to persuade her readers that her predecessors tended to "concentrate on one or at most two components" of what she sees "as an inseparable triad -- feminism, progressive politics, and science" in history (p. 146), which is why she discusses Russian science, Russian women, and revolution together. But readers who try to find an analysis of all these subjects here will be disappointed. First of all, the author gives only a sketchy outline of Russian science in the postemancipation period (after the Great Reforms of 1861). Second, she concentrates on the stories of only five Russian women scientists of the 1860s, ignoring completely the succeeding generations. The success stories of such...

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