Margot Harrison on A Woman of Science

One of the good things about independent publishing is that it gives us a window into the life stories of fascinating members of our community, whether or not those stories are commercial. And Cardy Raper, an octogenarian Burlington resident, certainly has a story. Raised in Plattsburgh, N.Y., and toughened by the teasing of five older brothers, she was entranced by science since the third grade. In those days, a woman pursuing graduate study in that field was a rarity. But at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, the author found her mentor — and future husband — Red Raper, a young professor who was studying the bizarre sex habits of water molds.

Thus began Cardy Raper’s long career of observing how fungi pair up and get it on — research that eventually took its place at the forefront of molecular genetics. After her husband’s death, she ran her own lab at Harvard, then at the University of Vermont until 2004.

Raper chronicles all that in Love, Sex and Mushrooms: Adventures of a Woman in Science, a memoir that sometimes feels more like a collection of anecdotes. She doesn’t always succeed at making her research comprehensible to the layperson, but the glee with which she describes fungoid sex changes is infectious. Her observations of human behavior are entertaining, too, whether she’s recalling the boorishness of genetics pioneer James Watson at a Harvard party or her own struggles to get students interested.

Raper’s candid descriptions give younger readers a picture of mid-century life they won’t get from “Mad Men.” While she did leave the lab in the ’50s to raise two kids and play suburban faculty wife, for instance, the author and her friends spent their spare time as activists for better schools, not bored Betty Drapers. We learn, too, the details of procuring an illegal abortion and getting a background check from the FBI during the Red Scare. And Raper describes, touchingly, how sharing a lab always brought her and her husband closer.

All in all, this lucidly written book leaves us with the impression of a life well lived — with tremendous energy.

Review by Margot Harrison
02.15.12
in the publicattion Seven Days