The history of science can at times read like a list of bearded old men (sorry Darwin), but there have been many incredible and inspiring women who have changed our understanding of the world around us, and we don’t need to wait for Ada Lovelace Day to celebrate them. Here are just a few of the famous female scientists that you really should know about.
German astronomer (1750-1848)
She may have been only a little over 1.2m tall, but what she lacked in stature she more than made up for with her contribution to our understanding of space. Born in Germany, at the age of 22 Caroline joined her older brother William in the English city of Bath to train as a singer, but it was soon astronomy that would become the focus of their lives. She worked as an assistant to William, recording observations and helping him produce ever more accurate lenses with which to search the night sky. Between them they were able to record around 2,500 new nebulae and star clusters, creating the basis for the New General Catalogue, the NGC notation by which these celestial bodies are named to this day.
An astronomer in her own right, she was the first woman to discover a comet, and in recognition for her work was employed by King George III in 1787 as William’s assistant, making her the first woman to be paid for scientific work. In total she discovered 14 new nebulas, eight comets and added 561 new stars to Flamsteeds Atlas.
Although her name isn’t as instantly recognisable as her brother William Herschel, Caroline’s contribution has been honoured many times over, including a Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1838 (another first for a woman), and has a comet, an asteroid, a crater on the Moon and a space telescope named after her. She even has a Google Doodle.
English fossil hunter (1799-1847)
Life in the 19th Century was undoubtedly hard for some, but being a poor uneducated woman made it especially so, which makes Mary Anning’s achievements all the more astounding. In the seaside town of Lyme Regis, a young Mary was taught to collect fossils by her father, which together they would polish and sell to tourists. Following his death this became the family’s only source of income. In 1811 her brother Joseph discovered a skull, and a few months later, only aged 12, Mary discovered the rest of the fossilised skeleton. At first it was believed to be a crocodile, but as it passed around the scientific circles it was finally classified as an ichthyosaurus, dating back 200 million years, making it the first complete fossil of a dinosaur.
Anning spent all of her life searching the beaches of Lyme Regis (on what is now known as the Jurassic Coast) for fossils, making further discoveries such as a complete long-necked Plesiosaurus skeleton and the Pterodactylus. In a time when most believed the Earth began in accordance to the Bible, the idea of 200-million-year-old animals buried deep within the ancient stone was at odds to the creation story, and extinction too proved problematic as it suggested the imperfect nature of God’s creatures. Anning’s unusual and often bizarre discoveries helped move scientific thinking away from Bible stories and opened up the field of palaeontology. Not bad for someone who was struck by lightning as a baby.
Austrian-Swedish physicist (1878-1968)
By the 1930s Lise Meitner was special, not only because she was one of the few women allowed to work in science, but she was also the foremost nuclear scientist in Germany. But she was also of Jewish descent, and when the Nazis rose to power in 1938 she was forced to flee the country. Later that year, while ensconced in Stockholm she was told about the latest results her working partner in Germany had obtained in his work on the radioactive decay of uranium, and she realised what he did not: that uranium was undergoing nuclear fission, splitting in half and releasing some of its tremendous store of nuclear energy. Seven years later, that same process of nuclear fission in uranium was triggered inside a bomb called Little Boy, dropped over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. The rest, you might want to say, is history.
Marie Curie won two Nobel prizes for her work in nuclear physics, and has a chemical element named after her (curium), but Lise Meitner discoveries, which were literally earth-shaking, are far less known. She never won a Nobel, although it’s widely recognised that she should have done – but she too has her own element, meitnerium. She was, Albert Einstein once said, Germany’s own Marie Curie.
American geneticist (1902-1992)
We live in an age where we have mapped the human genome and developed tools such as CRISPR to edit the building blocks of life, but all of this was possible thanks to the dedication and lifelong study into genetics by Barbara McClintock. She spent her entire career analysing maize, and in the 1930s developed a staining technique that allowed her to identify, examine and describe its individual chromosomes. Maize (or corn) might seem like an unusual choice of study, but for a geneticist they are a goldmine of information, as each plant can create kernels of different colours, each with their own genetic pattern. Armed with her research she was able to determine the existence of jumping genes, which are sequences of DNA that move between the genome.
Her work was not immediately recognised, and jumping genes were considered junk DNA by much of the scientific community at the time, but McClintock pressed on and suggested they might in fact determine which of the genes in cells are switch on – vital in creating differences between cell types, without which we would be just one amorphous blob of matter. It was not until 1983, when she was awarded The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, that the scientific community began to recognise not only just how important these jumping genes are, but how much of the genome they make up - some estimates suggest they makes up 40 per cent of the human genome.
McClintock also was the first to suggest the idea of epigenetics, where genes alter their activity in response to external factors, some 40 years before it was formally studied.
British chemist (1910-1994)
It takes a truly inspirational woman for Margaret Thatcher to seek advice about scientific issues from, especially from one who is vocal supporter of socialism, but Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin, former teacher to the Iron Lady, commanded such respect. Known for her advances in the field of X-ray crystallography, Hodgkin was able to determine the atomic structure of cholesterol, penicillin and vitamin B12, the last of which won her the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964 making her the only British female to win the prize.
It was only in 1969, after decades of improving X-ray crystallography techniques that she was finally able to conclude her longest-lasting challenge, mapping the structure of insulin after 35 years of work, which would improve treatment for diabetics. And all of her great work was done despite suffering from rheumatoid arthritis for most of her long and active life.
Mary the Jewess
Alchemist who lived between the first and third centuries AD
Alchemy, the art of turning base metals into gold, is not exactly what we’d call hard science these days but as an early form of chemistry (made up or not) it did provide the basis the methods and tools we still use to this day. One of the earliest, if not the first pioneer of the “art” was Mary the Jewess. Although none of her own writing exists, she is referenced by Zosimos of Panopolis, who wrote the first alchemic texts, and her work would provide the basis for alchemy.
Although turning metal into gold remained elusive, she is credited with discovering hydrochloric acid (take that with a pinch of salt thought), as well as the alchemical instruments the tribikos and the kerotakis, both of which have modern day equivalents in modern chemistry. If cooking is more your thing, you also have Mary to thank for one of your kitchen gadgets, the Bain-marie, which was named in her honour.
Russian Cosmonaut (1937-)
When it comes to the Space Race, although the USA were the first to land a person on the Moon there were a number of other space firsts they were beaten to. There are three Cosmonauts that head the Soviet Union’s hall of fame: Yuri Gagarin, the first person in space, Alexey Leonov, the first person to spacewalk, and Valentina Tereshkova. While still a textile worker, Tereshkova was selected from 400 applicants because of her skill at skydiving, proletariat background and worthiness for the role, and on 16 June 1963 made space history by becoming the first woman in space. She orbited Earth 48 times in a mission that lasted nearly three days, and at the age of only 26 remains the youngest woman and the first civilian to visit space.
After her return to Earth she continued to inspire future generations as a high-ranking member of the government, representing Soviet women in numerous positions on the global stage. But it is still space that inspires her, still wishing to fly to Mars, even if it is a one-way trip.
British Ethologist (1934-present)
Attitudes towards wildlife and conservation have transformed dramatically in recent years thanks to the research, dedication and compassion of extraordinary scientists like the Chimpanzee aficionado, Jane Goodall. From childhood Jane yearned for a life among African wildlife away from the war-stricken England she was born into. Unable to afford University, Jane settled for a job as a secretary, and by age 23, Jane had saved enough money to journey to Kenya, where she met renowned anthropologist and palaeontologist Dr Louis S B Leakey. Leakey, astounded by Jane’s enthusiasm and knowledge, embarked alongside her on an investigation of wild chimpanzees in Gombe at a time where the concept of a young woman cohabiting with wild African animals was preposterous. Her compassionate nature gained Jane the chimpanzees’ trust and she witnessed them eating meat and using tools, behaviours that disproved the existing assumption that chimpanzees were vegetarian. In 1965 she defied the odds to become one of the first to accomplish a PhD despite lacking a degree, however, because of this many scholars disregarded her credibility. Her success earned her funding from National Geographic, enabling her to establish the Gombe Stream Research Centre.
Throughout her phenomenal career, Jane Goodall published numerous books including the revolutionary work ‘The Chimpanzees of Gombe: Patterns of Behaviour’ and founded pioneering research establishments such as the Jane Goodall Institute for Wildlife Research, Education and Conservation. Upon learning of the deforestation and cruelty devastating global wildlife, Dr Goodall turned her experienced hand to conservation and now travels extensively, inspiring the next generation to proactively safeguard endangered wildlife.
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
English doctor (1836-1917)
Being the first English female doctor speaks for itself: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was an astounding and resilient woman whose plight and determination enabled other women to also achieve greatness. Having been inspired by successful women such as Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in the US, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson opted to contradict the submissive life she was expected to lead and become a doctor. Denied entry to any medical school, despite her respectable education, she was forced to study nursing alongside male peers whose objections led to her dismissal. After Elizabeth qualified as a doctor through the Society of Apothecaries, they immediately implemented a ban on female entrants. The sexism and adversity Elizabeth faced only fuelled her strength and resolve.
Having taught herself French in order to study at the University of Paris, Elizabeth finally earned her medical degree. However, this was still not enough to allow her onto the British Medical Register, so she established the New Hospital for Women, which was to become the London School of Medicine for Women, where she was later appointed Dean. Her vocal campaign efforts eventually paid off and in 1876 female entry into the profession of medicine was legalised. Even once she had retired from medicine, Dr Anderson was still grinding down the patriarchy, becoming the first female mayor in England. She was influential to the suffragette movement and inspired her daughter, alongside many other intrepid women, to follow in her esteemed footsteps and strive towards gender equality.
American computer programmer (1906-1992)
The nickname ‘Amazing Grace’ was not bestowed upon Grace Hopper without merit. An intuitive mathematician and computer programmer, she spent her early years studying at some of the most prestigious institutions in America, ultimately becoming one of the first women to achieve a PhD in mathematics. When World War II descended, Hopper followed in her grandfather’s footsteps, leaving her job teaching maths at Vassar College to join the US Naval Reserves. She was directed to Harvard University to learn to program the Mark I, the first functional computer. When technology had advanced to the Mark II computer, Hopper famously coined the term ‘debugging’ when the programming team removed a moth that was disrupting the computer’s processing.
Grace endeavoured to make computing accessible to the general public, first and foremost through the development of a comprehensive computer language, COBOL, which was based on English words rather than binary code. Twice she tried to retire but ended up continuing to work into her 80s, making her the US Navy’s oldest active-duty commissioned officer and earning her the Defense Distinguished Service Medal. She was also awarded many firsts including the first ever Computer Science Man-of-the-Year Award, the first female National Medal of Technology and the first American and first ever woman to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society. Her legacy remains in that modern-day computing is now commonplace and through the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing Conference, which supports and commends women in the world of computing.
Additional words by Josie Clarkson
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- 6 women in science history you (probably) didn’t know about (via History Extra)
- The wonder women of ornithology (via Discover Wildlife)