International Women’s Day might fall on 8 March, but the contribution women have made to science, technology engineering and mathematics (STEM) throughout history should be celebrated all year round. It’s the subject of Rachel Ignotofsky’s book Women in Science: 50 fearless pioneers who changed the world, which is filled with stories and fun facts about the women without whom the world as we know it would not be the same.
Physicist and Chemist
Marie Curie was born in Warsaw, Poland in 1867. She went to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, where she met Pierre Curie, a fellow scientist and her great love.
Scientist Henri Becquerel had discovered a mysterious glow coming from uranium salts. Marie was fascinated by the glow and wanted to know what it was and why it was happening. In a stuffy shed, she and Pierre went to work. Using Pierre’s electrometer, Marie examined ‘glowing’ compounds and discovered that the energy being produced came from the uranium atom itself. She started calling the effect ‘radioactivity’. To find the source, she and Pierre ground up and filtered down other radioactive elements: polonium and radium. The Curies received a Nobel Prize in physics in 1903, for the discovery of radiation. In 1911, Marie won a Nobel Prize in chemistry for her discovery of and research into polonium and radium.
Sadly, the radiation from their experiments was making Pierre and Marie sick. Their long-term exposure made them both tired and achy – we now understand that the effects of radiation poisoning are deadly. In 1906, Pierre was killed in a horse-carriage accident. Despite her grief, Marie continued to work and discovered that radium could treat cancer. She spent hours collecting radon for hospitals even though it left her feeling weak.
France was invaded during the First World War. With her daughter, Marie created a unit of X-ray trucks, which they drove on to battlefields to help wounded soldiers.
Marie Curie did scientific work because she loved it, and dangerous work because the world needed it. Her life and achievements continue to inspire scientists today.
Maria Sibylla Merian
Scientific Illustrator and Entomologist
Born in Germany in 1647, Maria Sibylla Merian combined science and art to become one of the great scientific illustrators of history. In the 1600s, most people thought insects were disgusting and not worth careful study. Maria could not have disagreed more. At a young age she started collecting insects to learn how they behaved. She painted the different stages of her favourite insects’ lives.
Maria was particularly interested in butterflies. At the time, no one really understood the connection between caterpillars and butterflies. In 1679, she published a book on metamorphosis, filled with scientific notes and illustrations. Then Maria’s life changed drastically. She left her husband and took her mother and two daughters to Holland. They joined a strict religious group with ties to a Dutch colony in South America called Suriname.
The group fell apart, but Maria’s interest in Suriname stayed. Aged 52, she braved its rainforests to document never-before-seen bugs. Her trip ended early when she contracted malaria, but she had all she needed to create her greatest book. The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname was published in 1705 and became a hit all over Europe. Maria’s detailed illustrations amaze people to this day.