Lunatic Ladies of the Laboratory

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While academia works to adjust the long-standing under-representation of women in science, consider for a moment the inevitable corollary to those numbers: the dearth of female mad scientists.

In a fantastic article over at io9.com, librarian, pulp fiction historian and comic book annotator Jess Nevins notes that this shortage is surprising, because “the first significant fictional mad scientist was a woman.” Nevins surveys the history of female mad scientists in literature, theater, comic books and reality, makes some fascinating discoveries and considers how these diabolical women stack up to their male counterparts.

From Nevins’ “incomplete” (but seemingly exhaustive) list, it’s hard to choose a favorite. There’s George Griffith’s Olga Romanoff (1893-1894), who, in her attempt to overthrow a world-ruling master race of Aerians, “builds a supersubmarine and a fleet of airships, drugs two high-ranking Aerians and Khalid (a powerful Muslim ruler) and makes all of them her mind-controlled lovers, and fights a number of bloody, losing battles against the Aerians.” Awesome. But she’s rivaled by the real-life exploits of Dr. Louise G. Robinovitch, who was known, according to a 1908 article in the New York Times, to “Use Electricity to Reinstill Life.” Robinovitch might have brought a dead rabbit back to life, and maybe a dead woman, too. The evidence was a little sketchy.

Nevins portrays the inequities between male and female mad scientists in fiction, then concludes that, since Whitley Streiber’s novel The Hunger was released in 1981, “the female mad scientist was used in a serious manner, and since then the female mad scientist has been allowed the variation in character and seriousness that the male mad scientists have always had.” Hopefully the realm of sane science is not so far behind.


Julie Greicius was Art Editor for The Rumpus when it launched in January 2009. One year later, she became Senior Literary Editor and is now Senior Features Editor. Julie also co-edited the first book published by The Rumpus, Rumpus Women, Vol. 1, featuring personal essays and illustration from twenty kick-ass contributors. Her writing been featured on The Rumpus, Midnight Breakfast, Stanford Medicine Magazine, and BuzzFeed, as well as in the anthology The 27th Mile. She lives in California. More from this author →