10 Women Who Made Scientific History
- For centuries, universities refused to grant science degrees to women.
- Pioneering women had to fight to receive credit for their contributions to science.
- There are more women scientists than ever before, but there is still a long way to go.
For centuries, universities refused to grant science degrees to women. The most prestigious scientific society, the Royal Society, didn't allow women to join until the 20th century. But women continued to practice chemistry, physics, biology, and astronomy, making revolutionary contributions to science.
Prior to the 20th century, many of the most notable women who practiced science were the wives and sisters of male scientists. Scientists like Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier and Caroline Herschel acted as unpaid, often unrecognized collaborators.
Even well into the 20th century, scientists like Alice Ball, who developed a treatment for leprosy, and Rosalind Franklin, who played a central role in discovering the structure of DNA, did not receive credit for their work.
We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.
In the words of one of history’s most famous women in science, Marie Curie, “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that?” Curie, who won two Nobel Prizes, concluded, “We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”
The number of female scientists in the 21st century has exploded compared with a century ago, when pioneering women fought to receive credit for their contributions.
Yet there’s still a long way to go. UNESCO reports that women make up less than 30% of researchers around the world. But professional organizations like the Association for Women in Science and scholarship opportunities for women in science continue to help women pursue careers in science.
The following 10 women shaped the field of science through their hard work and determination. Whether you're writing a biographical piece or historical essay, you can use these profiles to inform your work.
|Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier||Maria Sibylla Merian|
|Henrietta Swan Leavitt||Caroline Herschel|
|Rosalind Franklin||Marie Curie|
|Alice Ball||Lise Meitner|
|Barbara McClintock||Marie Tharp|
Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier
Known as the mother of modern chemistry, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier revolutionized the field with her husband, Antoine Lavoisier. Though Antoine received much of the credit in the 18th century, Madame Lavoisier played a pivotal role in chemical experiments and publications.
Marie-Anne rigorously documented the scientific experiments she and her husband performed, creating detailed illustrations so others could replicate the results. When Antoine debated the nature of oxygen with English chemist Joseph Priestley, Madame Lavoisier translated Priestley’s writings for her husband.
During the Reign of Terror, revolutionary leaders arrested Antoine for serving in a tax agency before the French Revolution. Madame Lavoisier defended her husband and called on an international community of scientists to support Antoine. Unfortunately, Marie-Anne watched her husband go to the guillotine on May 8, 1794.
Marie-Anne Paulze published a volume on the research she performed with her husband after his death.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
In 1895, Henrietta Swan Leavitt volunteered to work at the Harvard College Observatory. It took seven years for director Charles Pickering to offer Leavitt a salary — 30 cents an hour — and the Radcliffe graduate eventually became the head of the observatory’s photographic photometry department.
Leavitt made breakthrough discoveries in the field of astronomy, including discovering over 2,400 variable stars, which shift between bright and dim. Her work doubled the contemporary knowledge of these stars and helped Leavitt discover the link between a star’s brightness and its distance from Earth. Based on Leavitt’s discovery, Edwin Hubble determined the universe was expanding.
One colleague praised Leavitt for “possessing the best mind at the Observatory,” but because of her gender, Leavitt was only allowed to work on assigned projects. A pioneering deaf woman in science, the Leavitt crater on the moon recognizes her contributions.
The race to discover the structure of DNA consumed scientists in the 1950s. But the work of one woman, Rosalind Franklin, proved instrumental in uncovering the double helix.
Franklin held a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from Cambridge University and worked on x-ray crystallography. She successfully photographed the structure of DNA on a machine she refined after 100 hours of x-ray exposure.
Her colleague, Maurice Wilkins, gave the groundbreaking photograph to James Watson and Francis Crick without Franklin’s permission. When Watson saw the photograph, he said, “My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race.”
Watson and Crick used Franklin’s work to publish a groundbreaking 1953 article in the journal Nature that won the two a Nobel Prize. They shared the honor with Wilkins.
Unfortunately, Franklin passed away at the age of 37 and never received a Nobel Prize for her contribution to science.
A pioneering black chemist, Alice Ball revolutionized the treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century. After earning graduate degrees at the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii, Ball became one of the first female chemistry professors in history.
In the laboratory, Ball researched treatments for leprosy. In her early 20s, Ball developed the first injectable leprosy treatment made from the oil of the chaulmoogra tree. The "Ball Method" was used to treat thousands of leprosy patients until the development of sulfone drugs decades later.
When a lab accident exposed Ball to chlorine gas, she passed away at just 24 years old. After her death, another professor claimed Ball’s work as his own, denying her credit. Today, Ball stands as a trailblazing woman in chemistry.
In the mid-20th century, geneticists agreed that genes were fixed in place and did not move. Barbara McClintock upended that theory through her research on maize. Starting in the late 1920s, McClintock researched genetic transposition, a groundbreaking concept.
In the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock built on her work to prove that genes could turn on or off physical characteristics. She faced skepticism for challenging current ideas of molecular biology, which pushed McClintock to hold back from publishing some of her work.
In 1983, McClintock won a Nobel Prize for her work on the ability of genes to move positions on a chromosome.
“Over the many years, I truly enjoyed not being required to defend my interpretations,” McClintock said when she won the Nobel Prize. “I never felt the need nor the desire to defend my views.”
Maria Sibylla Merian
In the 17th century, Maria Sibylla Merian transformed the fields of botany and zoology. In the 1670s, she collected and observed living moths, butterflies, and other insects to create an illustrated catalogue of European insects. By working from life rather than with preserved specimens, Merian added vibrancy to the understanding of zoology.
After publishing several illustrated books, Merian traveled to South America with her daughter to continue her research. In the Dutch colony of Suriname, Merian studied indigenous animals and plants in their natural habitat. By traveling without a male companion and conducting scientific research from life, Merian challenged conventions in her era.
Merian contracted malaria while conducting research. After returning to the Netherlands, she published her naturalist study of Suriname, helping shape modern zoology and botany.
The astronomer Caroline Herschel holds several records for “the first”: She was the first woman to discover a comet and the first woman to receive a salary for her scientific work. Herschel was also the first woman granted honorary membership in the Royal Society before the prestigious society admitted women.
In the 1780s, Herschel worked with her brother, William Herschel, to catalogue the night sky. The siblings recorded 2,500 nebulae and star clusters, and Caroline discovered 14 new nebulae and eight new comets.
In 1787, King George III offered Caroline a salary for her astronomical research. She meticulously swept the skies to chart over 500 stars that the previous star catalogue did not list. Herschel died in 1848 at the age of 97 and her tombstone contains an inscription in her own words: “The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens.”
Marie Curie remains the only scientist to win Noble Prizes in two scientific fields. After studying at the Sorbonne, Curie became a professor of physics and opened her own laboratory to study radiation.
After the discovery of radioactivity in 1896, Curie isolated the new elements polonium and radium for the first time. She also developed a method to isolate radium to study it. In 1903, Curie won the Nobel Prize for Physics for her work on spontaneous radiation. Curie’s work on radioactivity earned her a second Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1911.
Curie’s work on x-rays and uranium helped create the field of atomic physics. After years of working with radioactive materials, Curie died in 1934 from exposure to radiation.
“I believe that science has great beauty,” Marie Curie said. “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician; he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”
In the 1930s, Lise Meitner helped discover nuclear fission. After earning a doctorate at the University of Vienna, Meitner became the first physics professor at the University of Berlin.
Meitner fled Germany when Hitler rose to power and relocated to Sweden, where she worked with Otto Hahn and Otto Frisch on nuclear fission.
When Hahn found the evidence for nuclear fission, Meitner and Frisch correctly described the process. Hahn went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work without acknowledging Meitner’s contribution. Meitner never won the Nobel Prize, though she was nominated for the Nobel Prizes in chemistry and physics 48 times between 1924-1965.
Meitner recognized the implications of weaponizing fission but refused to engage in that research. When asked to contribute to the Manhattan Project, Meitner declined, stating, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”
In 1953, geologist Marie Tharp created a detailed map of the Atlantic Ocean’s floor and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Tharp’s map proved the controversial theory of plate tectonics and established sea floor spreading.
At the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Tharp’s colleague Bruce Heezen groaned at her discoveries and dismissed them as “girl talk.”
But Tharp won over Heezen and the scientific community with her meticulous work. Though buried under miles of water, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge stands as Earth’s largest physical feature.
In 1999, Tharp fondly remembered her time at the Observatory. “The whole world was spread out before me. I had a blank canvas to fill with extraordinary possibilities… It was a once-in-a-lifetime — a once-in-the-history-of-the-world — opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s.”