Blending Chemistry, Cooking and Children’s Health: An audience with Bonnie Garmus

Blending Chemistry, Cooking and Children’s Health: An audience with Bonnie Garmus

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    Bonnie Garmus in conversation with Dame Mary Archer
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    Bonnie Garmus signing copies of 'Lessons in Chemistry' for attendees

In a special event to raise money for the ground-breaking new Cambridge Children's Hospital (CCH), author of global sensation Lessons in Chemistry Bonnie Garmus took to the stage to discuss her bestselling debut novel with the hospital’s campaign board co-chair, Dame Mary Archer.

I love the idea of combining mental and physical health; you simply can’t separate those.

Bonnie Garmus

Lessons in Chemistry tells the story of chemist Elizabeth Zott and her rise to stardom as host of her own cooking show in 1960s America. Garmus’s feminist fable has taken the world by storm and has recently been adapted for Apple TV with Brie Larson in the lead role.

In her candid conversation with Dame Mary – herself a former lecturer in chemistry at Trinity College – Bonnie shared insights into her journey and motivations, from her childhood ambition to be a writer to her experiences as creative director in a male-dominated advertising agency, which left her disillusioned and questioning why women are still not being taken seriously. The idea for the character of Elizabeth Zott sprang from Bonnie’s own need for a female role model in that male-dominated environment. And unfortunately, it’s a question that just won’t go away: the book’s exploration of gender inequality in the workplace has resonated with today’s scientists too. “Things have improved, but not enough,” Bonnie commented. “I have women writing to me every day to say that they still work in Elizabeth Zott’s lab.”

“In Lessons in Chemistry, I was looking to address the long-standing problem of brilliant minds being routinely barred from science through systemic sexism, racism, and cultural barriers. Science is the one field in which keeping women and minorities out is perverse, given that science itself doesn’t recognize intellectual limitations across sex, race or cultural groups.”

The pace of change is slow, but despite this, "I’m optimistic for women," Bonnie affirmed. "We are speaking up and standing up and refusing to sit back down." Having parented a seriously ill child, Bonnie was keen to help support the CCH campaign: “I was extremely lucky that Seattle had a great children’s hospital. The idea of not having one nearby in such circumstances is awful. And I love the idea of combining mental and physical health; you simply can’t separate those.”

CCH will be a global research institute, set to transform paediatric healthcare with its ‘whole child’ approach and cutting-edge genomic medicine to diagnose disease before symptoms begin. Dame Mary reflected on its importance: “The East of England is the only region in the UK without a dedicated children’s hospital. Treating physical and mental health separately is a thing of the past; the entire ethos, design, and staff of this hospital will be focused on treating the whole child. We know that enhanced wellbeing improves clinical outcomes, and this is a message we are eager to evidence and share with the world.”

Launched in March 2021, the campaign for Cambridge Children’s Hospital aims to raise £100m from philanthropy to make this pioneering venture a reality. As the campaign reaches the halfway mark, with over £56m in pledges and gifts secured, the team are looking to the future and the next phase of fundraising. Please get in touch if you’d like to know more!


Caroline Campbell

Head of Development — Children's Health

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Philanthropic giving is at the heart of the success of the Collegiate University, enabling us to make discoveries that change the world and to ensure that our students receive an unrivalled education. Cambridge owes its world-leading excellence in research and teaching to the generosity of its supporters. Our history is synonymous with a history of far-sighted benefaction, and the same is as true today as it has ever been.