13 Women Who Made Scientific History

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. While historically excluded, women have persisted and even have their own exclusively women’s colleges.

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.

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.

Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868-1921)

Weber State University Department of Physics / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology / Jenifer Glynn / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)

Smithsonian Institution / Flickr / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717)

Kunstmuseum Basel / Wikimedia Commons

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.

Katherine Johnson (1918-2020)

NASA / Wikimedia Commons

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.”

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Library of Congress / Contributor / Corbis Historical / Getty Images

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!”

Feature Image: Portra / E+ / Getty Images

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