Readers who want an immediate explanation for the title of The Madame Curie Complex – perhaps while waiting for their own copy of this splendid book to arrive in the post – should visit the webcomic xkcd. A recent edition of the comic, entitled "Marie Curie", features a zombie version of Curie (earlier comic strips have starred a zombie Richard Feynman) giving advice to a young woman who aspires to scientific greatness. After reminding the youngster that she was not the only great woman physicist, the zombie Curie explains that trying to emulate scientific idols is a bad idea. "You don't become great by trying to be great," she observes. "You become great by wanting to do something, and then doing it so hard that you become great in the process."

In her introduction to The Madame Curie Complex, author Julie Des Jardins notes that the myth of Curie cuts both ways: in her words, women have been both "empowered and stigmatized" by her example. Certainly, Curie has been an inspiration around the world. One case that I refer to in my own teaching is the Egyptian physicist Karimat El-Sayed, a groundbreaking researcher and advocate for the education of women in the Arab world. When asked about Curie in a 2003 interview with the Cairo weekly newspaper Al-Ahram, El-Sayed observed that this foreign woman – who discovered radium and became the first scientist to win two Nobel prizes – had "changed [her] life."

For others, however, Curie's status as an outstanding example has a negative effect. In particular, Des Jardins highlights the work of science historian Margaret Rossiter, who observed that Curie's successes were of such unattainable, mythical stature that they allowed "men to disqualify women – and women to disqualify themselves – from science".

Much publicity attended Curie's two American tours, which took place in the 1920s and were the brainchild of an American magazine editor. The tours succeeded both in raising money for research and spreading awareness of Curie's stature. However, the overblown publicity machine surrounding the tours also spun her as a maternal saint and humanitarian martyr. This image is patently false – Curie was simply a brilliant, dedicated scientist, and the humanitarian results of her work were a welcome by-product rather than her main goal. The image is also insidious because it turned her into an icon that real scientists who wish to be productive should not try to emulate.

Des Jardins is a historian at Baruch College, New York, and like all good historians, she not only delivers solid facts, but also provides an analysis that weaves these facts into a coherent story. She chooses to examine three periods of US science: the birth of science as a profession in the late 19th century, the mid-20th century "heroic age" and the late 20th century, coinciding with the rise of second-wave feminism (the first wave having encompassed, among other things, the campaign for women's right to vote). In each period, she examines in great depth the lives and careers of a number of women – beginning, of course, with Marie Curie and those American tours.

Des Jardins provides excellent introductions to each section, preparing readers for the historical insights that emerge from the ensuing biographical chapters. The first section, "Assistants, Housekeepers, ..." gives us a snapshot of women's scientific participation and education up through the late 19th century, showing how education led to narrow career paths that permitted women to engage in science only in highly selective ways – separate, yet unequal. Some women from this era, including Curie and the industrial engineer Lillian Gilbreth, would prove exceptions to this rule; intriguingly, both were widowed early in life from men who were their partners in science as well as marriage. Other women profiled in the chapter include Wilhelmina Fleming, Annie Jump Cannon and other women associated with Harvard's observatory. Their life and work trajectories – though diverse – illustrate the limits placed on women during this period.

The book's second section ("The Cult of Masculinity") describes the mid-20th-century tendency to consider women who did "empirically objective work" as mere technicians, never fully fledged scientists in the heroic mould of an Einstein or a Fermi. This was possible in part because theory was considered more exalted than experiment. Des Jardins also fleshes out the prototypical scientist of the time by citing Anne Roe's 1953 psychological study of 64 elite scientists: all male, they tended to be loners and oldest children, and, if married, they were often more excited by their work than by their wives.

The final section ("American Women and Science in Transition") introduces us to a time when intellectuals like Rachel Carson, Thomas Kuhn and Evelyn Fox Keller were producing work that "question(ed) the very foundations upon which scientific progress had been measured". Des Jardins traces relevant threads of social history from this era, including the publication of Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, followed by Title IX of the Educational Amendments of 1972, which prohibited sex-based exclusion or discrimination in educational programmes or activities funded by the Federal government.

This period also saw the founding of various societies to support women within established scientific organizations. The American Physical Society's Committee on the Status of Women in Physics, for example, was founded in 1971. (The Institute of Physics, which publishes Physics World, set up its first Women in Physics committee in 1985.) Feminist philosophers of science such as Sandra Harding began to trace the problem of women in science to the androcentric, racist and classist underpinnings of science itself. At the same time, the nature/nurture debate re-emerged in full swing. It remains alive and well to this day, as does the Madame Curie Complex.

A question that frequently crops up in feminist science studies is whether there is even such a beast as "feminist science" – in other words, scientific work done in accord with the principles of feminism, regardless of whether feminist ideology consciously drives the practitioner. It is difficult to make the case that such a thing exists in physics, but Des Jardins offers a clear example from the field of primatology. In chapter 7 she lays out an astute study of the lives and work of Jane Goodall (who studied chimpanzees), Dian Fossey (gorillas) and Birute Galdikas (orangutans), whose revolutionary methods and findings bucked the prevailing wisdom of their previously male-dominated field.

All three women were recruited and nurtured by Louis Leakey, who was convinced that women were more patient and that they "read social cues and observed the nature around them differently from men". Like Curie before them, Goodall, Fossey and Galdikas were represented in the popular media in ways that reinforced sexist stereotypes (for example, as a heroic madwoman or a mother to all living things). But again like Curie, the portrayal of their achievements also "inverted assumptions about women and western science".

As a physicist, I found chapter 4, "Those science made invisible: finding the women in the Manhattan Project", particularly fascinating. Many of the women at Los Alamos were non-scientist wives who were whisked away with their husbands to a bizarre enclave of babies and barbed wire, where secrecy and domesticity merged. But there were also women workers: roughly 10% of the workforce at the plutonium facility in Hanford, Washington, was female and the figure at Los Alamos was even higher.

These workers ranged from dining hall staff to technicians, chemists and physicists like Leona Libby – a scientific peer of the men who disguised her pregnancy under baggy overalls. Yet postwar essays and biographies by participants, including Laura Fermi, display what Des Jardins calls "cultural amnesia", seeing only the men as true contributors. Scientists like Teller were "kings" and there were no corresponding "queens". In the 1990s, when the physicists Ruth Howes and Caroline Herzenberg attempted to isolate and evaluate women's contributions to the wartime project, they found it a difficult task. As they described in their book Their Day in the Sun: Women of the Manhattan Project (Temple University Press, 1999), information about what these women did was frequently absent from both oral memories and the written record.

This invisibility is a theme that pervades the book, and is encapsulated in its subtitle "The Hidden History of Women in Science". Much of the invisibility of historical women lies in the narrow definition of what constitutes a "significant" contribution. If this definition is broadened such that it is sensitive to what women were encouraged or permitted to do by the culture in which they lived, scientific women emerge from historical shadows. One hopes that as women continue to enter science on an equal footing with men, we can look forward to a time when such culturally sensitive definitions become superfluous, and the queens take their deserved place with the kings of science.