Women in the History of Science
Celebrating Women’s History Month with Top 10 Lists. The Science Channel provides this list of the top 10 women in the history of science.
10. Maria Mitchell (1818-1889) Astronomer. Discovered “Miss Mitchell’s Comet,” plus first to detect that sunspots were a distinct astronomical phenomenon and not a type of cloud. First woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, but still paid less than her male colleagues at Vassar College until she stood her ground. When not behind a telescope, this Quaker woman was campaigning against slavery and for women’s suffrage.
9. Hypatia of Alexandria (c. 370 C.E.-415 C.E.) Philosopher, Mathematician, Astronomer, Physicist. Had her own students in a time when women were not exactly encouraged to become scientists. A pagan in increasingly Christian Alexandria, Hypatia was killed by an angry mob stirred up by the preaching of Bishop Cyril of Alexandria against women who fail to know their “place.” In the 19th C. she was often painted as the “Patroness of the Sciences.”
8. Jane Goodall (1934-) English primatologist. A student of the famous anthropologist, Louis Leakey (1903-1972), Goodall has done more to increase our knowledge of the life and habits of chimpanzees than anyone else. She has also been a leading voice for the ethical treatment of animals, especially primates. She has worked to stop hunting and poaching chimps for “bushmeat,” turning their hands and feet into ashtrays, encroaching on their habitats, use in laboratories for animal testing, etc.
7. Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) Pioneering physician in U.S. and U.K. We all know that getting into medical school is really tough, but Blackwell’s many rejection letters were not from poor grades or test scores, but solely because of her sex. ). But Blackwell had known opposition her entire life. Born in London to a family of dissenters (i.e., they rejected the established Church of England), the Blackwell children were denied public education and had to pay for private schools. They moved to America where they became strong abolitionists, but the girls in the family still faced obstacles in seeking higher education. Blackwell was finally accepted into the medical school of Geneva College (Geneva, NY Despite serving as a field doctor for Union forces during the Civil War, Blackwell still was rejected by hospitals. Eventually, she founded her own teaching hospital and medical college for women in London. Blackwell campaigned in two countries for women’s education, especially in medicine and for the acceptance of women in the medical field. Her autobiography continued that campaign.
6. Ada Byron (Countess Lovelace) (1815-1852). .British mathematician, analyst, and pioneer for what became computer programming. Proposed a “calculating engine” and demonstrated its potential. Yes, the first “computer programmer” was a woman, techno-geeks.
5. Barbara McClintock (1902-1992) . Pioneering U.S. geneticist. McClintock’s work with genes in maize (corn) in the 1940s was so far ahead of its time that it was dismissed by the scientific community for decades–but in 1983 they finally gave her the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. The daughter of a physician, McClintock earned a Ph.D. in Botony from Cornell University in 1927. She was the first to discover that genetic material is not always fixed, but can “jump” or be transposed quickly to another part of the chromosome. Today, this is basic to understanding why bacteria become resistant to antibiotics and why evolution, usually so slow, can also have leaps forward. But the scientific community was initially very resistant to McClintock’s findings. She just kept working and publishing her findings until others finally started reproducing her experiments and discovered that she was right all along. At the time of her death, some of her ideas were still very controversial, but many were confirmed by the Human Genome Project’s mapping of the human genome in the 1990s. Had she lived to be 100, she might have received a second Nobel, this one for her insights into the working of the genome.
4. Rachel Carson (1907-1964). American biologist, writer, and pioneer in ecology. Studying the effects of pesticides such as DDT, Carson discovered that these chemicals were not only killing the insects they were used to control, but also other wildlife, especially fish and birds. Her wake-up call, Silent Spring, was so titled because she feared a spring without birdcall. Her early death from breast cancer meant that she never saw the environmental movement that her book helped to spawn.
3. Lise Meitner (1878-1968). Austrian physicist and pioneer in nuclear fission. Earning her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Vienna in 1907, Meitner took a position with the University of Berlin in order to work with the chemist, Otto Hahn, who was also pioneering work in nuclear physics. Together, they discovered in 1939 that splitting the atom had the potential to create an enormous explosion. Meitner named the process, “nuclear fission” and, together with her nephew, Otto Fisch, published the explanation. Meitner was Jewish and had to flee Hitler’s Germany for Sweden (she later retired to Cambridge, England) Meitner’s published work led several atomic scientists to recruit Albert Einstein into warning Pres. Roosevelt of the potential threat this implied–thus leading to the Manhattan Project. Meitner continued to correspond with Hahn and publish work on nuclear fission. Hahn was later awarded the Nobel Prize (Physics, 1944) for his work in nuclear fission and Meitner’s role was completely overlooked and the Nobel committee never acknowledged this sexist error. In 1964, Meitner was jointly awarded the Enrico Fermi prize in nuclear physics together with Hahn and Fritz Strassmann.
2. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958). British biologist and geneticist. It was Franklin who took the careful x-rays that allowed Watson and Crick to discover the double-helix structure of DNA. She also found that RNA was a single helix and where it was located. Her early death from ovarian cancer probably cost her a share of the 1962 Nobel Prize in Chemistry that was jointly awarded to Watson and Crick. Then again, as we saw with Meitner, sexism might have cost her any recognition, anyway.
1. Marie Curie (1867-1934). Polish chemist and physicist. Curie studied at the Sorbonne and settled in Paris. She made the study of radiation her life and eventually died of radiation poisoning. 78 years after her death, her personal papers are still so radioactive that they must be handled by special gloves while wearing protective clothing. In 1903, she won a share of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and in 1911, she won (unshared) the Nobel Prize in Physics. She was the first person to win two Nobel Prizes–and remains the only person to win two Nobel Prizes in scientific fields.
Most people probably know Curie, Carson, and Goodall, but, sadly, the others in this list are mostly unknown. Tell your daughters.
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