Earlier this month, the New York Times Magazine published a piece asking why there are still so few women in fields involving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). It’s incredibly sad that, in 2013, we still need to ask ourselves this. We know that boys and girls have the same math ability and that math anxiety can be taught. Nevertheless, women in science still face a less-than-totally friendly atmosphere. (Although it has undoubtedly gotten better since Watson and Crick stole Rosalind Franklin’s work on DNA.)
Even though there may be fewer women in STEM fields than men, that doesn’t mean women haven’t made staggering advances in science and math over the centuries. Today is Ada Lovelace Day, a day devoted to recognizing women in science that is named after the woman who wrote the first computer algorithm in the 1840s. So in honor of all the women who blazed a trail for today’s girl science geeks, here are 10 incredible women who made lasting contributions in their fields. And trust me. There is way more where that came from.
Caroline Herschel was a German-born astronomer who moved to England with her brother, also an astronomer, to study music. Once she was there, though, she found herself acting as her brother William’s assistant. She and William compiled a list of 2,500 new nebulae and star clusters. She didn’t do everything with William, though. In 1786, Caroline became the first woman to discover a comet, and the next year she became the first woman to be paid for her scientific work. Caroline’s mad skills as an astronomer were recognized by prestigious scientific groups; she received the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society and an honorary membership into the Royal Society.
When the Natural History Museum in London calls you “the greatest fossil hunter ever known,” you know you’re good. Anning wasn’t trained as a geologist or an archeologist, but her discoveries have had an indelible impact on science. She discovered the fossil remains of an ichthyosaur and a plesiosaur, as well as the first pterosaur specimen found outside of Germany. Anning’s discoveries became evidence for extinction. (Believe it or not, until the 1820s lots of smart people thought extinction didn’t happen.) Despite her obvious awesomeness, as a woman she wasn’t allowed into the Geological Society of London.
Somerville was a Scottish science writer who had an interest in science and math from an early age. She wrote several books, including a book called Physical Geography (1848) that was so good it was used as a textbook until the early 20th century. She and Herschel became the first women inducted in the Royal Astronomical Society and she was awarded the Victoria Medal by the Royal Geographical Society.
Mitchell was an American astronomer and was the second woman to discover a comet. (Caroline Herschel was the first.) For her discovery she received a prize from the King of Denmark. Mitchell was also the first woman to be an astronomy professor in the United States when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865 and was the Director of the Vassar College Observatory. Mitchell was also the first woman to become a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Meitner’s work in nuclear physics arguably changed the world forever, but she rarely gets credit for it. While she was a professor of physics at the University of Berlin (the first woman in German to receive a full professorship, by the way), she did research that eventually led to the co-discovery of nuclear fission in 1939. This is a big deal. We’ve used fission to blow people up as well as provide clean power for millions of people. This discovery has changed a lot of things. And it won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1944, but not for her. Meitner’s research partner, Otto Hahn, received the award alone.
Hodgkin’s major contribution to science is her work with x-ray crystallography, which is a method of figuring out the three-dimensional shapes of molecules. She confirmed the structure of penicillin and the structure of vitamin B12. The latter won her a Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Her work has also been influential in how we treat diabetes. She began working on insulin in 1934, but the technology wasn’t yet up to snuff. It couldn’t deal with such a complex molecule. But Hodgkin was tenacious, and 35 years later the molecular structure of insulin resolved. She traveled the world giving talks about insulin and its role in diabetes. She is widely considered to be a pioneer in using x-ray crystallography to study biomolecules.
Bell Burnell is a Northern Irish astrophysicist who helped discover pulsars, which are basically the burned-out remains of a supernova that shoot out beams of electromagnetic radiation. She made this discovery in 1967 while she was a graduate student doing research under the supervision of Antony Hewish. This discovery won a Nobel Prize for Hewish and a radio astronomer called Martin Ryle, but not for Bell Burnell. Even though she was robbed by the Nobel committee, she has won plenty of other honors.
Wu was a Chinese physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. After World War II she stayed at Columbia University as a research assistant, where she and her colleagues Dr. Tsung-Dao Lee and Dr. Chen Ning Yang disproved the conservation of parity. Conservation of parity is kind of complicated, but it basically says that at super teeny tiny scales for fundamental physical interactions, it’s impossible to tell the difference between left and right and clockwise and counterclockwise. (Don’t worry. It doesn’t actually matter.) This was assumed to be true for all forces that act at the atomic level, but Wu and her colleagues’ research proved that this wasn’t true. However, Wu’s contributions were not recorded, so Dr. Lee and Dr. Yang received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957 while Dr. Wu did not.
Nettie Stevens is the reason we know why some people are born with male bodies and some are born with female bodies. It’s all in the chromosomes. She noticed that some species of animals had different-looking chromosomes for the different sexes. This was the first time a different-looking chromosome could be linked to different physical characteristics. She deduced that sex differences were caused by the presence or absence of a Y chromosome. A similar discovery was made a bit later by Edmund Beecher Wilson, but Stevens’ was more far-reaching. She recognized the women had two large sex chromosomes; Wilson missed this because he only performed tests on the testis because eggs were too hard to work with at the time. Not bad for someone who didn’t even start her research until she was 39 years old.
Trotula was an Italian physician who lived in the 11th or 12 century who is frequently credited with being the first gynecologist. She was also a professor of medicine. Trotula was a revolutionary force in the area of women’s health. She wrote several books, including the seminal book on pre-modern medical practices, which was also the only book to be written to teach men about women’s health. During the Renaissance, some scholars tried to argue that Trotula was, in fact, a man. (Hmmm… Big surprise. Matilda effect, anyone?) However, scholars today think that she did exist and was a woman, although there is still research being done on whether her writings came from one person or are an amalgamation of many different authors.
Photo Credits: Ada Lovelace Wikipedia, Carnegie Institution of Washington, John M. Riddle, M.F. Tielemanm, Mr. Grey, Thomas Phillips, H. Dassel, Smithsonian Institution, Wikimedia Commons, Harry the Dirty Dog, Wikimedia Commons