13 Women Who Made Scientific History
Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier | Henrietta Swan Leavitt | Bertha Parker Pallan Cody |
Rosalind Franklin | Alice Ball | Chien-Shiung Wu | Barbara McClintock | Maria Sibylla Merian | Caroline Herschel | Katherine Johnson | Marie Curie | Lise Meitner | Marie Tharp
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.
Before then, 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 served as unpaid, often uncredited collaborators.
“We must have perseverance and, above all, confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.”
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.
While the number of female scientists today is far higher than it was just a century ago, women still have a long way to go. UNESCO reports that women make up less than 30% of researchers around the world. Fortunately, professional organizations such as the Association for Women in Science and scholarships for women continue to help women pursue scientific careers.
The following 13 women shaped the field of science through their hard work and determination.
Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier (1758-1836)
Known as the mother of modern chemistry, Marie-Anne Paulze Lavoisier revolutionized the field with her husband, Antoine. Though Antoine received much of the credit in the 18th century, Lavoisier played a pivotal role in chemical experiments and publications.
She 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, 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. Lavoisier defended her husband and called on an international community of scientists to support him, but to no avail. On May 8, 1794, she watched her husband go to the guillotine. Later, Lavoisier published a volume on the research she'd performed with her husband.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)
In 1895, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who became deaf following an illness in college, 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 College graduate eventually became the head of the observatory's photographic photometry department.
Leavitt made breakthrough discoveries in astronomy, including the identification of over 2,400 variable stars. Her work doubled the contemporary knowledge of these stars and helped Leavitt find the link between a star's brightness and its distance from Earth. Based on her discovery, Edwin Hubble determined that 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. Today, the Leavitt crater on the moon recognizes the pioneer's groundbreaking contributions.
Bertha Parker Pallan Cody (1907-1978)
Born at an archaeological dig site in New York where her father performed excavations, Bertha Parker Pallan Cody (born Bertha Yewas Parker) is widely considered one of the first female Native American archaeologists.
After moving to Nevada as a young adult, Cody demonstrated a keen interest in scientific research when she assisted her uncle in archaeological excavations. Over the years, Cody published numerous research articles and even made a revolutionary discovery of a Pueblo site in 1929, which she named "Scorpion Hill."
Cody later described the dig in a 1933 article: "The fragments of charcoal indicated that the room had been burned and that its roof had consisted of large beams covered with tules and arrowcane. I uncovered about half the room that day."
From the 1950s to the 1970s, Cody served as a trustee for the Southwest Museum. She also co-hosted a TV show on Native American lore with her famous actor husband, Iron Eyes Cody.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
The race to discover the structure of DNA consumed scientists in the 1950s, but it was the work of one woman, Rosalind Franklin, that 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 photograph to James Watson and Francis Crick without Franklin's permission. When Watson saw the picture, he said, "My jaw fell open and my pulse began to race."
Watson and Crick used Franklin's work to publish a revolutionary 1953 article in the journal Nature, ultimately winning them the Nobel Prize, an honor they shared with Wilkins. Unfortunately, Franklin passed away at the age of 37 without receiving recognition for her contributions to science.
Alice Ball (1892-1916)
A pioneering Black chemist, Alice Ball revolutionized the treatment for leprosy in the early 20th century. After earning graduate degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii, Ball became one of the first female chemistry professors in the U.S.
In the laboratory, Ball researched treatments for leprosy. In her early 20s, she developed the first injectable leprosy treatment made from the oil of the chaulmoogra tree. The "Ball Method" was eventually used to treat thousands of leprosy patients until the development of sulfone drugs decades later.
Ball died at just 24 years old after being exposed to chlorine gas in a lab accident. After her death, another professor claimed Ball's work as his own, denying her credit. Today, Ball stands as a trailblazing woman in chemistry.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
A pioneer in physics, Chien-Shiung Wu was the first person to prove that the principle of parity conservation does not apply during beta decay.
Born and raised in a small town north of Shanghai, Wu was fortunate enough to receive a formal education, which was uncommon for girls at the time. In 1934, Wu graduated from the National Central University in Nanking (now called Nanjing University) with a degree in physics. At the urging of a female mentor, she decided to continue her studies in the U.S. and later earned a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley.
Wu remained in the U.S. to teach university-level physics courses at Smith College and Princeton University, where she was the first woman professor in the physics department. She also joined the Manhattan Project through which she helped advance knowledge of atomic science.
Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)
In the mid-20th century, geneticists agreed that genes were fixed in place and did not move. Barbara McClintock, however, upended that theory through her research on maize.
Starting in the late 1920s, McClintock researched genetic transposition, a groundbreaking concept. Then in the 1940s and '50s, she built upon her work to prove that genes could turn on or off physical characteristics. McClintock faced skepticism for challenging current ideas of molecular biology, which pushed her to refrain from publishing some of her work.
In 1983, McClintock won the 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. "I never felt the need nor the desire to defend my views."
Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)
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 habitats. By traveling without a male companion and conducting scientific research from life, Merian challenged the social conventions of her time.
Once she returned to the Netherlands, Merian published her naturalist study of Suriname, helping to shape modern zoology and botany.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)
Caroline Herschel was not only the first woman to discover a comet and the first woman to receive a salary for her scientific work, but she was also the first woman to be granted honorary membership in the Royal Society before the prestigious society admitted women.
In the 1780s, Herschel worked with her brother, William, to catalogue the night sky. The siblings recorded 2,500 nebulae and star clusters, with Herschel alone discovering 14 nebulae and eight comets. In 1787, King George III offered Herschel a salary for her astronomical research. She meticulously swept the skies to chart over 500 stars that the previous star catalogue did not list.
The tombstone of Herschel, who died in 1848 at the ripe age of 97, contains an inscription in her own words: "The eyes of her who is glorified here below turned to the starry heavens."
Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)
Born in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson is best known for her work as a "computer" at NASA. Specifically, it was her mathematical calculations that helped the U.S. send people into orbit around Earth and, later, to the moon.
In her youth, Johnson had a penchant for numbers and counting. She learned quickly, too, and started high school at just 10 years old and college at 15.
Over a decade after earning her degree in mathematics, Johnson learned that NASA was hiring Black "computers" — highly skilled mathematicians who could perform and solve difficult math problems. In the 1960s, NASA used Johnson's calculations to successfully send astronauts into orbit.
Upon her death in 2020, NASA administrator James Bridenstine remarked, "She was an American hero, and her pioneering legacy will never be forgotten."
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie remains the only scientist to win Nobel Prizes in two scientific fields. After studying at the Sorbonne, Curie became a professor of physics and opened a 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 for observation. In 1903, Curie won the Nobel Prize in physics for her work on spontaneous radiation. Curie's work on radioactivity earned her a second Nobel Prize, this time in chemistry, in 1911.
Curie's work on X-rays and uranium helped establish the field of atomic physics. After years of working with radioactive materials, Curie died in 1934 from radiation exposure.
Lise Meitner (1878-1968)
In the 1930s, Lise Meitner helped discover nuclear fission. After earning a doctorate from the University of Vienna, Meitner became the first physics professor at the University of Berlin. As Adolf Hitler rose to power, however, she 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 the Nobel Prize for his work without acknowledging Meitner's contribution. Meitner never won the Nobel Prize herself, though she was nominated for prizes in chemistry and physics 48 times between 1924 and 1965.
Meitner recognized the implications of weaponizing fission but refused to engage in that research. When asked to contribute to the Manhattan Project, she declined, stating, "I will have nothing to do with a bomb!"
Marie Tharp (1920-2006)
In 1953, geologist Marie Tharp created a detailed map of the Atlantic Ocean's floor and discovered the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Earth's largest physical feature. 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 her meticulous work ultimately won over Heezen and the scientific community as a whole.
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."
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