Beyond Marie Curie, there’s been many extraordinary women who’ve been neglected in the scientific world—and they deserve to be known. So, here are 10 female scientists no one talks about who changed the history of science.
We’ve all heard of the amazing careers and accomplishments of women in science, haven’t we? Surely, we can all name many female scientists who changed the world. Right, ask that question on your average trivia night, with an average crowd, and, if we’re lucky enough, they’ll jump to answer “Let’s see, there’s Marie Curie, and…” The utter silence that follows is painful. So, in order to fix that and fill the unjustifiable void, here are 10 female scientists (and a bonus) almost no one talks about who changed the history of science.
She was a leading figure in the field of occupational health, assessing the safety and welfare of employees in their work environments—making her key for several social-welfare reforms from the first half of the 20th century. She was also a pioneer of industrial toxicology, and the first woman ever to be appointed to the Harvard University faculty.
Meitner, together with Otto Hahn and Otto Robert Frisch, spearheaded the discovery and understanding of nuclear fission in 1939—one of the core elements for virtually all nuclear-related technological advances. Even though she provided crucial insights for the breakthrough, she was utterly ignored when Otto Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery.
Wu led an incredibly prolific and successful research career in nuclear physics, making considerable advancements in the field. Her most famous contribution is specifically known as the Wu experiment, which disproved the physical law of conservation of parity. Though it was Wu’s experiment that showed an important case in which the law is violated, only theoretical physicists (and authors of the original idea) Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang were awarded the Nobel Prize for the results.
She was the visionary who invented the very first treatment for leukemia, called Purinethol, the anti-malaria drug Pyrimethamine, the anti-herpes treatment acyclovir (Zovirax), the immunosuppressive drug used for organ transplants called azathioprine, the research methods that led to AZT, a drug for the treatment of AIDS… And the list goes on. Fortunately, unlike other women in this list, she was a co-recipient of the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She deserves no less.
McLaren was a top pioneer in the field of embryonic development, specifically in research about in vitro fertilization (IVF). Her successful work on mice, which managed to fertilize healthy embryos outside the womb and implant them in surrogates, was pivotal to the development of human IVF.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell
As a postgraduate student, Bell was the first to observe radio pulsating radio signals which she traced to a neutron star. In other words, she discovered pulsars, and that was a huge deal in astrophysics, described as “the greatest astronomical discovery of the 20th century.” In 1974, her supervisor and his colleague were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for her discovery, much to the dismay of several prominent astronomers.
Once upon a time, seismologists believed the Earth had a single molten core. Those were simpler times, perhaps, but utterly ignorant. Then along came Igne Lehmann, an unassuming seismologist and geophysicist, to turn our understanding of our planet on its head. In order to account for inconsistencies between the old theoretical models and the actual measurements from earthquakes, Lehmann theorized the Earth’s core actually consisted on two layer: an inner solid core sitting inside an outer molten one. She was later proven right, and her discovery forever changed the field. She also holds the record for the longest-lived female scientist (she died when she was 104 years old)!
When she was 12 years old, Anning decided to take a stroll with her brother one fine day in 1811. Together, they found what was later identified as the first complete ichthyosaur skeleton, which launched her fruitful paleontological career. She would go on to discover two complete plesiosaur fossils, the first non-German pterosaur, and countless other skeletons that served to establish key advancements in paleontology—all of which made one of the world’s leading authorities in her field at the time. In spite of that, she never fully participated in the scientific community, as it was composed mostly of Anglican men.
Mangold was the author of one of the few doctoral dissertations to result directly in a Noble Prize. Unfortunately, the prize was awarded to her male mentor, Hans Spemann, in 1935, utterly neglecting her role in the demonstration of embryonic induction (the capacity present in certain cells to guide, or induct, the development of other cells). Induction is one of the central notions in embryology even to this day. She died 10 years before Spemann was given the Nobel, so she never even realized just how important the results of her thesis were.
Many owe their lives to Stephanie Kwolek and don’t even know it. She’s the inventor of the kevlar (the material used in bullet-proof vests), for which she won the DuPont’s Lavoisier Medal. She remains DuPont’s only female employee ever to receive the honor. Though she originally wanted to study medicine, her early work in chemistry captivated her so much that she dedicated her career to the field, winning several awards for her incredible breakthroughs.
True, people talk about Rosalind Franklin, but arguably, not enough, and she’s definitely still worth mentioning. Consider her a bonus addition to this list.
Back in 1953, geneticist James Dewey Watson and biologist Francis Crick published a paper outlining DNA's double helix structure based on Franklin’s experiments, which fundamentally altered the way we think about all life on Earth. Her research was a pivotal for the discovery, but ten years later, when Crick and Watson were co-recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine for their 1953 paper, she was infamously neglected—a far too common injustice during the 20th century, as you can see.
All these women played a crucial role in giving us the world we know today, and lack of recognition could never change that. Hopefully, however, their stories will be often retold in the future, earning them their rightful place in the history of science—even if they won’t get to see it.
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