10 Historic Women of Science You Should Know
July 13,2015 Sarah Stapleton

Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau have shown that as recently as 2011 only 26% of the workers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) were women. In 1970 they only made up 7% of the STEM workforce.

The ten women below defied the odds and naysayers to break gender barriers and become leaders in building the foundation of science and healthcare. Their work has inspired environmental safeguarding, scientific discovery and generations of young women to pursue careers in science despite opposition and persecution.

Nettie_StevensNettie Stevens (1862-1912)

Known for: Sex chromosomes Nettie Maria Stevens grew up in a post-Civil War America and became a teacher rather than simply marry early like many women at the time. Nettie went back to school at 35 and finally, at age 39, she started working as a research scientist and was fascinated by the process of sex determination. Her studies focused on mealwormswhere she discovered that the females produced only X chromosomes the males had reproductive cells with both X and Y. Her conclusion was that males were the ones to determine the gender of their offspring. Unfortunately for Nettie, another researcher named Edmund Wilson made a similar discovery at the same time and received the majority of the praise by the scientific community. The good news, however, is that it is now generally considered that Nettie made the larger theoretical leap which was proven to be correct.

Annie_Jump_Cannon_1922_PortraitAnnie Jump Cannon (1863-1941)

Known for: Astronomy American astronomer Annie Jump Cannon studied physics and astronomy at Wellesley where she was taken ill with scarlet fever that left her almost completely deaf, but she still graduated with a degree in physics. Eventually she also took graduate courses in astronomy before enrolling at Radcliffe Women’s College at Harvard to gain access to the telescope at the Harvard College Observatory. She worked at the Observatory under Edward Pickering and became one of the underpaid women so called “Pickering’s Harem” who were hired to complete the painstaking task to map and classify every star in the sky. In order to better classify stars, Annie created a system based on spectral absorption lines which resulted in the famous OBAFGKM classification astronomers use today. The sexist mnemonic to remember the order is “Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me.” Though she was never honored with a Nobel Prize, during her forty year career Annie alone observed and classified over 200,000 stars.

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Known for: Nuclear fission In 1945 a scientist named Otto Hahn won theNobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nuclear fission; however, it was Lise Meitner, overlooked for the prize, who collaborated with Hahn and gave the first theoretical explanation of fission. Today, the “mistake” by the Nobel committee to exclude Meitner is considered by the scientific community to be a huge error by the Nobel committee. Later, Lise was awarded the U.S. Fermi Prize in 1966 (along with two other scientists). It was written by her nephew that Lise had a “vision of physics as a battle for ultimate truth, a vision she never lost.”

Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)

Known for: Genetics Barbara McClintock was an American scientist and a pioneer cytogeneticist. Barbara focused her research on maize (corn) cytogenetics and studied how chromosomes changed during reproduction. It was Barbara who discovered a technique to visualize maize chromosomes while also developing a way to analyze many fundamental genetic ideas via microscopic analysis. In the 1940s and 1950s she discovered that it was genes that determine physical characteristics. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for her work in gene transposition, also known as “jumping genes,” and was the first woman to have ever received an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Known for: Environmental conservation Rachel Carson began her professional career as a radio script writer for the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries before rising to Editor-in-Chief of all publications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She devoted herself to writing about the conservation of natural resources and published several pamphlets and books on the subjects which made her a famous as a naturalist and as a scientific writer for the public. Despite being persecuted as an alarmist by the chemical industry and government officials, she was courageous and continued to speak out against damaging the earth’s ecosystem, even testifying before Congress in 1963 while battling breast cancer. Her book Silent Spring became a rally point for an environmental movement and according to H. Patricia Hynes, a Rachel Carson scholar, “Silent Spring altered the balance of power in the world. No one since would be able to sell pollution as the necessary underside of progress so easily or uncritically.” Rachel’s most poignant legacy is the ban of the use of DDT, a dangerous insecticide, in the U.S. She campaigned for its phase out for years and thanks to groups inspired by her work who continued the fight, the use of DDT was eliminated in 1972.

Rita_Levi_MontalciniRita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)

Known for: Neurobiology Bucking the tradition of marriage and family, Italian scientist Rita Levi-Montalcini instead graduated from university with a degree in medicine and surgery. Rita then took a job at the university until Benito Mussolini made it illegal for those with Jewish heritage, like Rita, to work in universities. Frustrated but not beaten, Rita instead set up a laboratory at home in her bedroom using sewing needles she fastened into surgical tools. Talk about dedication. She worked through World War II studying nerve growth in chicken embryos, even after a bombing forced her from her home and into the countryside. Rita eventually came to America and became a citizen when, working with Stanley Cohen, she isolated nerve growth factor, a proteinthat promotes nerve growth. In 1986 she and Cohen were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine and she was the first Nobel laureate to live past her 100th birthday.

Dorothy_HodgkinDorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)

Known for: X-ray crystallography Born in Cairo to English parents and raised for many years in the Middle East and North AfricaDorothy Hodgkin became a leader in X-ray crystallography. Her advancements in the field determined the technique to create 3D structures of complex organic molecules. Dorothy studied at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Her most significant contributions were the determination of the structures of penicillininsulin and vitamin B12, for which she received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. At the time only two other women had ever won in that category (Marie Curie and her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie). Dorothy also had a passion for humanitarian efforts and worked for scientists and people living in adversarial conditions in nations like the Soviet Union, China and North Vietnam.

Chien-shiung_Wu_(1912-1997)_CChien –Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Known for: Radioactivity & physics Chien-Shiung Wu, nicknamed the “First Lady of Physics,” was born in China and encouraged by her father to become educated. At the time Chien-Shiung graduated from university there were no postdoctoral physics programs in China so she immigrated to the U.S.. She received a doctorate from Berkley and went on to teach at Smith College and Princeton University before working on the Manhattan Project at Columbia University. While at Columbia two of her colleagues, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen Ning Yang, proposed a theory that would disprove the Parity Law, a law stating objects that are mirror images behave the same way. Chien-Shiung developed an experiment that proved this was not true; however, it was her colleagues who received a Nobel Prize while Chien-Shiung was overlooked. Despite this lack of recognition from the Nobel committee, Chien-Shiung won many other awards, was the first woman President of the American Physical Society, the first woman awarded an honorary doctorate by Princeton University, the first woman to receive the National Academy of Sciences Comstock Prize, and has a long list of other achievements. Additionally, she was a staunch advocate for women to pursue careers in the sciences despite the barriers.

Gertrude B. Elion (1918-1999)

Known for: Drug development Gertrude Elion had an impressive career. She helped to develop drugs for malarialeukemiaherpesAIDS, and to prevent kidney transplant rejection. She spent her early years in New York and joined Burroughs-Wellcome (now GlaxoSmithKline) during World War II where she partnered with Dr. George H. Hitchings. The two of them began studying the chemical composition of diseased cells to create new medications. All in all, Gertrude helped to develop forty five medication patents and was awarded twenty three honorary degrees. She also received a Nobel Prize, along with her colleague George Hitchings and Sir James Black, and in 1991 was the first woman to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Rosalind_FranklinRosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Known for: X-ray crystallography Rosalind Franklin, who is the namesake of Rosalind Franklin University, was a British scientist. Rosalind studied in both England and France and her most notable work was done at King’s College in London. Her work on X-ray diffraction images of DNA led to the discovery of the DNA double helix. The images she created implied a helical structure and her data were key to the work of Maurice WilkinsFrancis Crick and James Watson in their modeling of the structure of DNA for which they later won a Nobel Prize and Rosalind was excluded. It didn’t stop her though. She went on to be a pioneer in her field working on identifying the molecular structures of viruses like the tobacco mosaic virus and the polio virus until her untimely death from cancer at age thirty eight.

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