Wonder Women Book Recs

Posted by Danielle Mohlman


Here at Quirk Books we’re all about giving credit where credit is due. And we kind of hope the rest of the world has the same intention. So why didn’t we learn about Alice Ball or Marie Equi or Mary Bowser in school? Why is unearthing knowledge about these women as intensive as an archeological dig? Not for long! Thanks to Sam Maggs’ new book Wonder Women, twenty-five women in the fields of science, medicine, espionage, innovation, and adventure are getting their due. And we at Quirk Books are very excited to be playing a small role in reframing the conversation about women in history.


Alice Ball, Chemist and Medical Researcher

If you’re wondering why hardly anyone gets leprosy anymore, you can thank chemist and medical researcher Alice Ball. After graduating from the University of Washington with two bachelor’s degrees – one in science and one in pharmaceutical chemistry, natch – Alice Ball went on to invent an injectable treatment for Hansen’s disease (aka leprosy). And she was only twenty-three! Sadly, Ball died the next year after suffering complications from inhaling chlorine gas in the lab. Ball’s inoculation went on to become the primary treatment for leprosy until sulfone drugs were invented in the 1940s. But here’s the kicker: Dr. Arthur Dean at the University of Hawai’i took full credit for her miracle drug – even naming it after himself. That’s right, folks. This dude renamed our girl Alice’s invention “The Dean Method.” Ugh. We think Alice would really enjoy reading The Monopolists by Mary Pilon, a book that explores the real inventor of the popular board game. Ever hear of Lizzie Magie? We didn’t think so.


Marie Equi, Doctor and Birth Control Advocate

Despite the fact that only 3% of American doctors were women at the time, Marie Equi moved to San Francisco in 1897 to study medicine at the Physicians and Surgeons Medical College and the University of California Medical Department, ultimately earning her degree in Portland in 1903. Equi went on to become an advocate for women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, and birth control. She was notably arrested with birth control activist Margaret Sanger in 1916 while the two of them were distributing pamphlets on  “family limitation.” During the altercation, Equi stabbed her arresting officer with a pin as if to say “Who’s the boss now?” As someone who didn’t live to see Roe v. Wade, we think Marie would be a big fan of Katha Pollitt’s incredible manifesto Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights.


Mary Bowser, Spy

Mary Bowser was such an expert spy that to this day we know basically nothing about her. Even the so-called “facts” about Bowser remain fundamentally unproven. There’s no record of her ever going by the name “Ellen Bond” and it’s pretty certain that she never tried to burn down the Confederate White House in 1865. But unconfirmed rumors aside, it’s an irrefutable fact that Mary Bowser is one of the bravest women in the Civil War. And we can only imagine what it was like for her to help bring down the Confederacy by disguising herself as a slave. Here’s another thing we know: we know Mary Bowser would be a big fan of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. Not only does the character Robin participate in her own form of espionage, Robert Galbraith himself is a disguise for the illustrious J.K. Rowling.


Ynes Mexia, Botanist and Explorer

As the daughter of an American woman and a Mexican diplomat, Ynes Mexia moved around a lot as a child. Mexia started a successful poultry and pet stock-raising business out of her home in Mexico City and later went on to a two-decade career as a social worker in San Francisco. She didn’t discover her love of plants until later in her life and at fifty-one enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley, to study natural science and botany. She teamed up with Stanford botanist Roxana Ferris in 1925 and set off on a two-month expedition to Mexico. The two women returned with more than 500 specimens, including a few previously undiscovered plants. This launched Mexia’s love of botanical expeditions, exploring plants everywhere from Alaska to Peru to Brazil and beyond until 1938. We’re confident that Ynes Mexia would love Euphoria by Lily King, a novel centering on an anthropological expedition in New Guinea in the 1930s. Mexia is sure to love protagonist Nell Stone and her why-didn’t-he-fall-off-the-boat-on-the-way-there husband Schuyler Fenwick.