Fantastically Great Women Scientists

Step Inside the Photograph … Researching Fantastically Great Women by Kate Pankhurst

Fantastically Great Women Scientists and Their Stories is another fantastic addition to this empowering series from author/illustrator Kate Pankhurst.

I’m often asked where I begin my research for the Fantastically Great Women books. As an illustrator turned author I’ve figured out the absolute best way to start is with the pictures. My brain works in images so delving into visual research and doodling first helps me get to know each woman, not just as a distant figure written about in the history books, but as real person with real dreams and talents.

Memorable images include Frida Kahlo ticking the ear of her Mexican hairless dog, volcanologist Katia Krafft standing shoulder to shoulder with her husband Maurice as raging lava cascades behind them and Anita Roddick of the Body Shop dressed in 1970s clothes pumping an enormous bottle of body lotion in the first ever branch of The Body Shop. Images like this add personality to everything I read about these women afterwards. They give a three dimensional sense of the place in time, the fashions of the day, the incidental details that make a character jump off the page.

 I’ll give you a few examples of images that got me thinking from my visual research for the most recent title in series, Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their Stories:

Rosalind Franklin: Aside from blurred shapes of the legendary photograph Rosalind Franklin took of Photograph 51 (the first ever image that strongly indicated that DNA has a double helix structure), I found a black and white image of Rosalind leaning over, intently staring down a microscope. The lab bench is covered with glass flasks, jars and other vintage scientific ephemera. I imagined her lost in the moment, methodically carrying out her research despite the famously strained relations with her colleague, Wilkins, at Kings College, London.  

lost in the moment


It was later pointed out to me by a friend who works as a biologist that obviously that photo was most probably one that Rosalind was asked to pose for by the institution she was working for at the time. A ‘could you just put your lab coat on and stick that microscope there because it’ll look good in the press release’ kind of affair. Still, it captured a moment in time and provided lots of visual information about vintage lab equipment to refer back to for my illustrations in the book.

Tu Youyou: Dueto the secrecy of the government in China at the time of her pioneering work her developing a treatment for malaria remained top secret until very recently. This made my search for visual reference quite tricky, so I instead looked at propaganda posters from the time. They inspired a pull-out spread that explores the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Not an easy subject matter to explain but it’s made easier through this visual device.

Fantastically Great Women

Mae ‘dancing’ in zero gravity on her space mission with NASA


Mae Jemison: One of the first images I found of Mae Jamison, the first African American women to become an astronaut, was of Mae ‘dancing’ in zero gravity on her space mission with NASA. It’s such a joyous, iconic image that I felt children would relate to I knew; I had to translate that into her chapter somehow. The dancing image pops up early in the chapter when we discuss Mae’s childhood talent for moving to her own beat and reappears as we journey with Mae as she orbited the Earth.

Giving learners the opportunity to delve into visual research can be a great ‘way in’ to writing non-fiction and fiction. Exploring photographs, posters and artworks related to inspiring people can generate ideas for unique character designs. They can spark ideas for visual devices to tell a story, like vintage style newspapers, bus tickets, NASA astronaut training manuals and cross-sections of period homes. Most of all, starting with the pictures is a great way for learners to get to know inspiring women from history, to step inside the photograph and be inspired to draw, to write … to dream about what world-changing journeys their own talents might take them on.

Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their Stories by Kate Pankhurst is available to buy from our Bookshop here: Fantastically Great Women Scientists and their stories | Just Imagine… (justimaginestorycentre.co.uk)

Kate Pankhurst talks about Fantastically Great Women Who Changed History in this podcast with Nikki Gamble.