10 famous women scientists who wrote history
Written by Anina Werner02. August 2022
It's no secret that women are underrepresented in science. To date, only one-third of all researchers are female1, and the statistics on Nobel Prizes for science look even worse; less than 3 % have gone to women so far and, in 2021, they once again went away empty-handed.2 The gender gap is huge. Yet there are pioneering women who have made major breakthroughs over the past centuries, transforming our scientific understanding of the world. We want to spread the word about 10 of them in this article.
Table of contents
The British chemist Rosalind Franklin played a substantial role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, although this achievement is generally credited to James Watson and Francis Crick. But let's start at the beginning: After doing a PhD in Cambridge and working abroad for a few years, Franklin joined King's College London in 1950, where she used her X-ray diffraction experience to take pictures of DNA. One of these pictures, known as photograph 51, clearly demonstrates the double-helix structure of DNA. It was handed to Watson and Crick – without her permission or knowledge – by her colleague Maurice Wilkins. When publishing their model of the DNA molecule in Nature in April 1953, Watson and Crick only acknowledged in a footnote that they were 'stimulated by a general knowledge' of Franklin's and Wilkins' 'unpublished contribution', even though much of their work was based on Franklin's findings.3,4
If you would like to learn more about Franklin, check out Brenda Maddox's biography 'Rosalind Franklin: The dark lady of DNA', which draws her out from the shadows.
Dorothy Hodgkin’s interest in chemistry was sparked at about the age of 10, when she received a book about experiments with crystals. What no one knew back then was that she would become one of the greatest chemists of her time. During her school career in England from 1921 to 1928, she was one of two girls allowed to attend the boys’ chemistry classes, and later decided to study the subject in Oxford. After receiving a PhD from the University of Cambridge, she managed to determine the three-dimensional structures of penicillin and vitamin B12, thanks to X-ray crystallography. She was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964 for determining these important biochemical structures.5,6
Listen to the BBC's podcast on Dorothy Hodgkin's life to learn more about the first – and so far, only – British woman to have won a Nobel Prize for science.
Barbara McClintock was a woman ahead of her time. When studying the cytogenetics of maize in the 1940s, she came up with the theory of genes that could move around or 'transpose' within chromosomes, switching physical traits on or off according to certain 'controlling elements'. As her findings contradicted the prevailing genetic theory at that time, other scientists ignored her work for more than a decade. It was only in the mid-60s that the scientific community finally validated her theory, and when she was honored with the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983, her work was already more than 30 years old.7
For more information on the life of this pioneering scientist, read Evelyn Fox Keller's biography 'A feeling for the organism: The life and work of Barbara McClintock'.
Marie Curie was born as Maria Sklodowska in Poland, but moved to Paris because of Warsaw's ban on women in its university. In France, she fell in love with the scientist Pierre Curie. She started to live and work with him, and they were married in 1895. In 1903, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics – together with Antoine Henri Becquerel – for the discovery of, and research on, spontaneous radioactivity. Curie was the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, but had to sit in the audience during her husband's lecture at the prize ceremony in Stockholm, which added a bitter taste to the event. However, Curie was not discouraged; she became the first female professor at the Sorbonne University in 1908, and won a second Nobel Prize for the isolation of polonium and radium in 1911.8,9,10
If you're interested in learning more about this remarkable woman – one of only four people holding two Nobel Prizes – we recommend reading Barbara Goldsmith's biography 'Obsessive genius: The inner world of Marie Curie'.
The list of Katherine Johnson's achievements is long. In 1939, she was one of the first students of color offered a spot at West Virginia University. Johnson didn't finish her studies in mathematics because she decided to start a family, but she got a job at NASA in 1953, where she provided some of the mathematics for important spaceflight projects during the 'Space Race'. Her skills were so extraordinary, that the astronaut John Glenn requested that Johnson double-check the equations programmed into the computers that controlled the trajectory of his orbital spaceflight. "If she says they're good, then I'm ready to go," he said. On top of being an excellent mathematician, she also opened the doors for other women who wanted to pursue a career in science and engineering – an achievement for which President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015, at age 97.11,12
Catherine Johnson's story has been told in the book 'Hidden Figures' published in 2016, and in the film based on this book. Those who would like to hear her story in her own words, however, should read the memoir 'My Remarkable Journey', which Johnson wrote with two of her daughters.13
Mary Anning made her first big discovery when she found a 5.2 m long skeleton in 1811, at the age of only 12 years old. Scientists initially thought that the mysterious fossil was a crocodile, and discussed and studied it for years before naming it Ichthyosaurus. Today, we know that Ichthyosaurus was a marine reptile that lived about 200 million years ago but, at the time of Anning's discovery, the theory of extinction was new, and Darwin's evolutionary theory not yet published. Anning remained committed to fossil collecting throughout her life, uncovering and identifying fossil after fossil and, in theory, she should have become a respected paleontologist as a result. In practice, many male scientists published papers about her fossils without crediting her. She was also accused of faking fossils, and the Geological Society of London refused to admit her because of her gender. This meant that she was under financial strain when she died in 1847, despite a lifetime of extraordinary discoveries, including finds of Ichthyosaurus, Plesiosaurus and Pterosaur.14
Nowadays, her contributions to paleontology and evolution have finally been recognized, and you can read Shelley Emling’s biography titled 'The Fossil Hunter', published in 2011.
The Chinese-American scientist Chien-Shiung Wu, also called ‘The First Lady of Physics’, was an experimentalist who became known as a leading expert in nuclear physics during the 1940s and 1950s. Because she was among the best in her field, two fellow physicists – Tsung-Dao Lee and Cheng-Ning Yang – asked her to create an experiment proving their theory that the conservation of parity doesn't apply during beta decay. This probably doesn't mean anything to non-physicists, but it changed what was known about how the universe operates. It basically proved that a mirrored version of the universe would not behave the same as the mirror image of the universe. To understand how Wu came to this conclusion, read this article from the American Physical Society. Lee and Yang were awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for this discovery in 1957. Wu's contribution, however, was ignored by the committee, and was only recognized in the 60s and 70s with several other prestigious awards. This frustration might have been the reason for her participation in educational programs for girls after her retirement. She not only encouraged these young women to pursue a scientific career, but also talked about her struggle to earn recognition for her work.15,16,17,18
Unlike Wu's son, who also became a nuclear physicist, her granddaughter is a reporter covering culture and politics. In 2021, she wrote an article on her grandmother's life, and talks about her experience in the podcast episode 'The queen of nuclear physics’ (part two): Forming Chien-Shiung Wu's story'. We highly recommend listening to it if you want to learn more about Wu's background and personal life, as well as her professional achievements.
Lise Meitner was the third of eight children of a Jewish family living in Austria. After finishing her studies in physics at the beginning of the 20th century, she moved to Germany, where she started to work with the chemist Otto Hahn – who would later damage her scientific reputation after a friendship of several decades. In 1938, when the two had worked together for 30 years, Meitner had to flee to Sweden because of the Nazi regime. Despite Meitner being in exile, her collaboration with Hahn continued. A year later, they managed to design and conduct an experiment, together with chemist Fritz Strassmann, that provided evidence for nuclear fission. As Hahn feared to admit that he worked with Meitner, he started to claim that nuclear fission belonged to the field of chemistry, and accused Meitner of misleading, delaying and even obstructing the discovery. This became the accepted account, and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to him alone in 1944. The mistake of the Nobel committee was partly rectified when Meitner was awarded the Enrico Fermi Award – together with Hahn and Strassman – in 1966, and when element 109 was posthumously named Meitnerium (Mt) in her honor in 1992.19,20
To give Meitner the credit she is due, Ruth Lewin Sime published her biography 'Lise Meitner: A life in physics' in 1996.
Jane Goodall was fascinated with animals from her earliest childhood; she was found trying to understand how earthworms could move without legs, as well as hiding in the hen house to watch a chicken lay an egg. It was therefore no surprise that she decided to go to what is now Gombe National Park, Tanzania, at the age of 26. Immersing herself in the chimpanzees' habitat, she made her first groundbreaking observation when she found out that the apes use tools – grass stems, to be precise – to fish for termites. In 1961, she became the eighth person to be admitted to Cambridge University as a PhD candidate without an undergraduate degree. After receiving her PhD in ethology, she continued to study the chimpanzees in Gombe, and established a research center that attracted many women. In doing so, she not only helped us to understand chimpanzees and save them from extinction, but also paved the way for other women primatologists. To this day, Goodall continues to tirelessly advocate for chimpanzees in various parts of the world, connecting with the public primarily through lectures, recordings and podcasts since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.21
Watch National Geographic's documentary film 'JANE' to discover the story of this inspiring scientist.
Rachel Carson was born on a farm in Pennsylvania, United States, in 1907, where she developed a love of nature. Later on, she studied zoology at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Johns Hopkins University, and worked for the US Bureau of Fisheries and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. After publishing several popular books about aquatic life – including 'The Sea Around Us', which sold well worldwide – the marine biologist decided to concentrate on writing. Her most famous book – 'Silent Spring' – was published in 1978, two years before her death, and focuses on the effects of pesticides on ecosystems and human health. She asked for a ban on long-lasting pesticides like DDT, regulations for their manufacture and sale, and research on alternative methods, such as biological controls. As a result, laws and regulations were tightened and, following her death, a government expert said: "There is no question that 'Silent Spring' prompted the Federal Government to take action against water and air pollution – as well as against the misuse of pesticides – several years before it otherwise might have moved."22,23
If you would like to learn more on the woman whose book did more than any other publication to alert the world on the hazards of environmental poisoning, read Linda Lear's biography 'Rachel Carson: Witness for nature'.
We hope that this article has given you a glimpse into the lives of some of the most successful women scientists, and ideas for books, podcasts and documentaries that you could read, listen to and watch next.
Was a scientist that inspired you missing from this article? Leave a comment below – there are many other women who would deserve to be mentioned, and we would be happy if you helped us extend the list.