Beatrice Shilling on her motorcycle, pushed by two women © Getty Images

Five remarkable British women of science

From aeronautical engineering to fighting for women's right to education, these five British women all had a significant impact on their fields.

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, we’ve gathered together the stories of five British women who made groundbreaking contributions to their fields.

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1

Rosalind Franklin

British chemist Rosalind Franklin, born in 1920 in Notting Hill, and in 1942 began her investigation into coal utilisation for London Coal, an activity that was essential for driving the British war effort. This research was the basis of her PhD thesis at Cambridge.

In 1950 during her research she discovered that there were two forms of DNA and was offered a three-year scholarship to undertake further investigation at King’s College in London.

Here she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands and the likely helical structure. She also found that when DNA is exposed to high levels of moisture, its structure changed.

Read more about her namesake, the Rosalind Franklin rover:

In 1953, her colleague Maurice Wilkins showed James Watson and Francis Crick the X-ray data that Rosalind had obtained, confirming the 3D structure that the pair had speculated about for DNA.

In March 1958 Rosalind passed away at the age of 37 from several illnesses, including ovarian cancer. In 1962, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins for solving the structure of DNA.

Rosalind Elsie Franklin (© Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Rosalind Elsie Franklin © Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

Watson suggested that Rosalind, along with Wilkins, should be awarded a Nobel Prize for Chemistry, but the Nobel Committee does not make posthumous nominations.

In his 1968 book, The Double Helix, Watson outlined how the two had become friends while working together. He also remarked that he would never have won a Nobel Prize or published a famous paper if it wasn’t for Rosalind.

2

Janet Taylor

Janet Taylor was born ‘Jane Ann Ionn’ on 13 May 1804, the sixth child of the Reverend Peter Ionn and Jane Deighton, the daughter of a country gentleman.

After the death of her mother when she was just seven years old, Janet gained a scholarship at the precociously young age of nine, to attend Queen Charlotte’s school in Ampthill, Bedfordshire, where the other girls were all aged over 14. Her life thereafter took her into the heart of maritime London.

Her father, the curate of the church of St Mary and St Stephen and schoolmaster of the Free Grammar School at Wolsingham, inspired her in the wonders of navigation. She became a prodigious author of nautical treatises and textbooks, born of a fascination in particular in measuring longitude by the lunar distance method.

She conducted her own Nautical Academy in Minories in the east end of the City, not far from the Tower of London; she was a sub-agent for Admiralty charts; ran a manufacturing business for nautical instruments, many of which she designed herself; and embarked on the business of compass-adjusting at the height of the controversies generated by magnetic deviation and distortions on iron ships.

Read more about great female scientists:

Through her scientific work Janet established a respectful correspondence with those in the highest positions in the maritime community: men like the head of the Admiralty’s Hydrographic Office, Captain, later Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort, and Professor Sir George Biddell Airy, the Astronomer Royal.

Where they were hesitant at first in their engagement with Mrs Taylor, she clearly won their support and respect. Between 1617 and 1852 there 79 patents awarded for nautical instruments – Janet was the only women among them for her Mariner’s Calculator.

In 1835, in consideration of ‘services she has extended to seamen’, through her Lunar Tables, the Admiralty awarded her £100 ‘from scientific funds’, a ‘handsome pecuniary award’. She was similarly honoured by the two other members of the ‘big three’ of the 19th century maritime world in Britain: the Elder Brethren of Trinity House and the East India Company.

She also received international recognition for her contributions: gold medals from the King of Holland and King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia; and, by 1844, a medal from the Pope.

Janet passed away on in January 1870. She was the author of many books, including some that ran to 27 editions and several are still in print today. She was also an inventor of several nautical instruments with some being held in the national maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Sadly, she died in obscurity and bankrupt, estranged from all her children, several of whom lived in Australia. Her death certificate records her occupation simply as ‘Teacher of Navigation’, but she was far more than this.

A mathematician, astronomer, author, instrument maker and inventor, her life story is told in Mistress of Science: the story of the remarkable Janet Taylor.

3

Beatrice Shilling

Born in 1909 in Hampshire, aeronautical engineer and daredevil motorcycle racer Beatrice, ‘Tilly’, Shilling, is credited by her peers as helping the Allies to win the Second World War.

Beatrice Shilling on her motorcycle, pushed by two women © Getty Images
Beatrice Shilling on her motorcycle, pushed by two women © Getty Images

She purchased her first motorcycle at age fourteen, later obtaining a Bachelor and Master’s degree in mechanical engineering, specialising in the elimination of piston temperatures of high-speed diesel engines. In March 1941, she solved a problem that had jeopardised the life of pilots in the exigency of airborne engagement.

In 1940, during the Battle of France and Battle of Britain, Royal Air Force pilots discovered a serious problem of stalling in fighter planes with Rolls Royce engines.

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Tilly led a small team that designed a simple device to solve this problem – a brass thimble with a hole in the middle, which could be fitted easily into the engine’s carburettor. It remained in use as a stop-gap to help prevent engine stall for a number of crucial wartime years.

4

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Hodgkin was born in 1910, the eldest of four daughters and in 1920 the family settled in Suffolk. At school she attended a state secondary school where only boys were allowed to study chemistry, but she fought the system to be enrolled.

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin © Getty Images
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin © Getty Images

Eventually, she was admitted to Oxford where she was recognised as an exceptional student and obtained a first class honours degree in chemistry in 1932. She obtained her PhD from Cambridge in 1936 and undertook research mapping the architecture of cholesterol and examining the structure of penicillin, essential to creating a synthetic version of it.

Her work led to many industrial contracts and from the 1950s onwards focussed her research on the structure of insulin, building the first model of the insulin molecule.

Read more about Hodgkin:

In 1964 Dorothy won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for “her determinations by X-ray techniques of the structures of important biochemical substances”. She was only the third woman to have won a Nobel Prize for Chemistry after Marie Curie and her daughter Irene Joliot-Curie, and the fifth woman to win a science Nobel Prize.

She is still the only British woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize in any of the three sciences it recognises. In 1965, Dorothy was the second woman, after Florence Nightingale, to be appointed to the Order of Merit by a British monarch.

5

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake

Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake was born in 1840 in Hastings, England. She was home-schooled until the age of eight and obtained a job as a tutor in mathematics to young girls. Her father, appalled at the idea that his daughter would work, would not allow her to be paid.

In 1869, she published an essay, ‘Medicine as a profession for women’, however, as no English medical school would accept women, Sophia pressed her case in Scotland in 1869. Although the Faculty and Academic Senate supported her admission, it was overturned by University Court, on the basis that the University could not make the necessary arrangements ‘in the interest of one lady’.

Undaunted, she advertised in The Scotsman newspaper, which resulted in six other women joining her cause. Collectively known as the ‘Edinburgh Seven’, the University Court approved their admission, which made the University of Edinburgh the first university in Britain to admit women.

Sophia Jex-Blake aged 25 © Margaret Todd (Public domain)
Sophia Jex-Blake aged 25 © Margaret Todd (Public domain)

The experience of the women was not easy. The angry response they evoked when they went to take an examination and their entry to the hall was blocked by a mob of hostile students, which became known as ‘the riot at Surgeons’ Hall’.

In 1871, Sophia brought a libel action against a member of the university staff whom she accused of starting the riot. As a result, she was awarded a farthing in damages but was left with a legal bill of nearly £1,000.

But opposition in the medical profession also became more entrenched and, for two years, the women were excluded from the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Then in January 1872, the University Court decided that even if the women completed the course and successfully passed all the examinations, they could not be granted medical degrees.

Read more biographies of great women in science:

Sophia took the case to the Scottish court, which first declared the university’s decision invalid, but in early 1873 the appeal court not only supported the university but held that it had never had the power to accept women students. Sophia’s group stayed in Edinburgh for another year, gaining what experienced they could in the wards of the infirmary.

In March 1874, Sophia took her career plans to London. Her first step was to found the London School of Medicine for Women. With the support of a number of eminent medical men as lecturers, Sophia acted as Secretary of the school, but was also one of its students.

When the school opened on 12 October 1874 it had fourteen students on its roll, including the Edinburgh women. But it took the support of members of parliament to champion a private member’s bill, that passed on 11 August 1876, to enable women to qualify in medicine to overcome the resistance they continued to encounter.

Four months later she passed the examination in Dublin qualifying as Licentiate of the King’s and Queen’s College of Physicians of Ireland. She became only the third woman in Britain registered with the General Medical Council and the first practising as a doctor in Scotland.

In the 1880s, Sophia practised medicine privately in Edinburgh, founding the Edinburgh Hospital and Dispensary for Women and Children and, in 1886, the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women. In 1894, the University of Edinburgh admitted women to graduate in medicine.

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Sophia Jex-Blake was an outstanding pioneer who fought hard for the rights of women to practise medicine. To honour her commitment, the University of Edinburgh displays a plaque near the entrance to the medical school describing her as a ‘Physician, pioneer of medical education for women in Britain, alumnus of the University’.

Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives by John S Croucher is out now (Amberley Books, £20)

Women of Science: 100 Inspirational Lives by John S Croucher is out now (Amberley Books, £20)