Even today, many people would answer the question “Who is the most famous scientist of all time?” with the names Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. If pressed, they could probably come up with the names of other male scientists whose work had a profound impact on the world — perhaps including Nicolaus Copernicus, Gregor Mendel, Charles Darwin. If they were then asked “Who is the most famous woman scientist of all time?” most would be able to respond with Marie Curie’s name, although they might not be able to identify her field or her contribution to it — and might not be able to come up with the names of any other women scientists.
Here are some of the ground-breaking women scientists.
Caroline Herschel, 1750-1847
Caroline Herschel was a German astronomer who began a career in science as an assistant to her older brother William, helping him in the building of telescopes in the 1780s. But on her own, Herschel made history by discovering never-before-seen nebulae and star clusters, and becoming the first woman to ever discover a comet. She was also the first British woman to have her scientific research published by the British Royal Society.
Ada Lovelace, 1815-1852
Ada Lovelace was a fascinating figure of the 1840s, a writer and mathematician who also just happened to be the daughter of British poet Lord Byron. Lovelace is remembered as the world’s first computer programmer, thanks to the algorithm and notes the wrote on Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine.
Maria Mitchell, 1818-1889
In the 1847, the self-educated astronomer Maria Mitchell made history when she became the first person to discover a comet’s orbit using a telescope. Her discovery led to her becoming the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the first woman to teach astronomy at an accredited academic institution (Vassar College in 1865).
Elizabeth Blackwell, 1821-1910
Elizabeth Blackwell became the first woman on the UK Medical Registry, and the first woman to receive a medical degree in the United States in 1849. Born in Bristol, England, Blackwell would later become a strong advocate for the presence of women in medicine, and co-founded the UK’s National Health Society in 1871.
Marie Curie, 1867-1934
Marie Curie was a pioneering physicist who discovered the elements radium and polonium, coined the term “radio-active” and won the Nobel Prize — twice, the first time anyone had achieved such a feat. In her honour, the United Nations named 2011 the International Year of Chemistry (the year marking the 100th anniversary of her second Nobel Prize). Her first Nobel Prize, in 1903, which she shared with Pierre Curie and Henri Becquerel, was the first Nobel to be awarded to a woman. In 1903, Marie Curie also became the first woman in France to earn a PhD in physics. As rumors of a Nobel Prize began to circulate, some members of the French Academy of Sciences attributed the brilliance of the work not to Marie, but to her co-workers. These sceptics began to lobby quietly for the prize to be split between Henri Becquerel and Pierre Curie. But Pierre insisted to influential people on the Nobel committee that Marie had originated their research, conceived experiments and generated theories about the nature of radioactivity. Luckily, they listened.
Alice Augusta Ball, 1892-1916
Alice Augusta Ball died at only 24, but she left an indelible mark in the world of science thanks to ground-breaking research towards a cure for leprosy, a technique known as the Ball Method that was used to successfully treat patients of the disease for decades after her death. In 1914, Ball became the first woman and the first black person to graduate with a masters degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. She later became the first woman to teach chemistry at the university.
Irène Joliot-Curie, 1897-1956
Marie Curie is widely known for her research on radioactivity which made her the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. But her daughter, Irène Joliot-Curie, made equally important discoveries in chemistry, winning a Nobel Prize of her own in 1935 for her discovery of artificial radioactivity.
Rachel Carson, 1907-1964
Rachel Carson’s work as a marine biologist sparked an environmental movement that led to actual change across the world. In 1962 Carson published her greatest piece of scientific work, Silent Spring, which exposed the dangerous properties of the pesticide DDT, leading to an eventual ban in America.
Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu, 1912-1997
Born in the Jiangsu province of China in 1912, physicist Chien-Shiung Wu was the first woman to win the Research Corporation Award after providing the first experimental proof, along with scientists from the National Bureau of Standards, that the principle of parity conservation does not hold in weak subatomic interactions. In the 1940s she was recruited by Columbia University on the Manhattan Project, during which time her research on radiation and uranium helped debunk a long-held law of parity. In 1957, Wu would be excluded as a recipient of the Nobel Prize for the breakthrough, with her male colleagues receiving the award instead.
Gertrude Elion, 1918-1999
American biochemist Gertrude Elion changed the lives of millions when, in the mid 80s, she developed several vital new drugs and treatments, including the first immunosuppressive drug used for organ transplants. Elion not only devised radical new treatments for leukaemia, her work also laid the foundation for the development of AZT, the life-saving AIDS medication.
Rosalind Franklin, 1920-1958
Without Rosalind Elsie Franklin, our knowledge of DNA today simply would not be the same. In 1956, the British chemist played a huge role in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. However, Franklin’s work was later attributed to her colleagues James Watson and Francis Crick. The men won a Nobel Prize in 1962, for which Franklin (who died in 1958 at age 37) was excluded.
Vera Rubin, 1928-2016
Vera Cooper Rubin was an American astronomer who pioneered work on galaxy rotation rates. She uncovered the discrepancy between the predicted angular motion of galaxies and the observed motion, by studying galactic rotation curves. In the 1970s, Vera Rubin found evidence of a hypothetical type of invisible matter now called dark matter.
Patricia Bath, 1942-Present
Not only was Patricia Bath the first black woman surgeon at the UCLA Medical Centre, she is also a prolific inventor in the world of optometry. In 1981, Patricia Bath developed the Laserphaco Probe, a medical tool for cataract removal. The invention made her the first African American woman doctor to receive a patent for a medical invention.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, 1943-Present
Hailing from Northern Ireland, Jocelyn Bell Burnell is an astrophysicist who in 1967, as a grad student, became the first person to ever observe radio pulsars. Unfortunately, her male advisor and another male colleague ended up receiving the credit for the discovery instead of her, getting the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery in 1974.
Mary-Claire King, 1946-Present
Mary-Claire King is responsible for making the game-changing discovery of the Chromosome 17 genetic marker, a chromosome which research found to be at the root cause of several diseases. King’s research in the 1970s and 80s proved that breast cancer can be hereditary, and therefore identified and prevented before cancer begins to grow. Her findings led to the later discovery and testing techniques for BRCA1, the gene that causes breast-cancer.
Dr. Wanda M. Austin, 1954-Present
Dr. Wanda M. Austin is the former president and chief executive officer of The Aerospace Corporation, an organization that engineers America’s national security space program. In an extremely white and male dominated field, Austin has become a leader in the aerospace field, particularly in simulation and system engineering.
Of course, this list represents just a fraction of the amazing women who have contributed to science. Hopefully, the stories of these women can inspire us all to not only take a deeper interest in science, but also in the women who have paved the way in the field.