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Women In Science


A novel lesson in 1960s chemistry

by Leigh Krietsch Boerner
May 26, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 19


Lessons in chemistry are lessons in life

Image of Bonnie Garmus.
Credit: Serena Bolton
Science-y storyteller: Bonnie Garmus's debut novel Lessons in Chemistry takes on the challenges of a woman chemist in the early 1960s.

In Bonnie Garmus’s debut novel Lessons in Chemistry, protagonist Elizabeth Zott makes an observation about studying chemistry that many Newscripts readers can appreciate: “Because when women understand chemistry, they begin to understand how things work.”

Zott’s remark isn’t just about science. She is referring to her own life experiences as a woman trying to do chemistry during a particularly sexist time—the early 1960s. “I wanted to tell her story, about a woman trying to be taken seriously in that time frame,” Garmus says.

After being forced out of both her lab and her chemistry career, Zott reluctantly agrees to host a TV cooking show. The show ends up a huge hit, and Zott uses her platform to not just teach the mainly female audience about chemistry but also how traditional gender roles are holding women back.

The cover of Lessons in Chemistry. The cover features a vector style graphic of a woman wearing glasses and looking to the right.
Credit: Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Reader response: Lessons in Chemistry came out in April, is already on the New York Times bestseller list, and has been picked up for a TV adaptation staring Brie Larson.

Garmus tells Newscripts that she dealt with a lot of misogyny and sexism in her career as a scientific editor and technical copywriter. “I really wanted to reassure myself that we had somehow moved forward from the decades when my mom was a new mom, when I know the misogyny was worse,” she says. And while society has moved forward, Garmus has gotten over 100 messages from women scientists on how much Zott’s experience resonated with them. “One woman wrote: ‘My lab is exactly the lab Elizabeth Zott is in and it’s 2022. I’m always asked to make the coffee. And people touch me or they talk over me,’ ” Garmus says.

Though Garmus doesn’t have a background in chemistry, she knew early on in her writing process that she wanted her main character to be a chemist. “I chose that specifically because I knew that my character was going to have a cooking show,” Garmus says. “I had to choose a science because I wanted her to have a serious show, but I wanted her producers not to be as serious as she was making it,” she says. “So chemistry was the right fit.”

Garmus decided that she needed to teach herself chemistry in order to write the novel. However, she limited herself to the chemistry known at the time of the book’s setting. “My scientific chemistry knowledge goes up to 1963. It doesn’t go beyond that,” Garmus says. A large part of this knowledge came from the 1960 classic The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments. This book was eventually banned because of the dangerous nature of some of the experiments. For example, it tells kids how to make chlorine gas from hydrochloric acid in the comfort of their own home laboratories. Garmus managed to snag a copy from eBay and promptly tried an experiment that set her kitchen on fire.

“There’s a section in the very beginning of [Lessons in Chemistry] where I say that pistachios are extremely flammable,” Garmus says. This is knowledge she gained firsthand. “To say that the flames were a lot larger than I thought they could possibly be is like the understatement of the year,” Garmus says. “It felt like I was in the middle of a forest fire.” Having just moved into a new apartment in London, Garmus didn’t have a fire extinguisher yet, though she put out the flames before the firefighters showed up. “Which is why, by the way, I added that section in the book on why a fire extinguisher is important,” Garmus says.

Chemists have thanked Garmus for writing about chemistry without vilifying the subject, as makers of fiction are wont to do (for example the television series Breaking Bad about a chemistry teacher who makes methamphetamine). “I hadn’t really thought of that, that chemists are sometimes put in that category,” Garmus says. “In my opinion, you’ve probably got the coolest kind of science.”

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