PEOPLE

11 famous female scientists who changed history

Below is a closer look at some of the most famous female scientists who helped to shape our understanding of the world around us.

8 mins to read
Woman in boardroom

Science is an ever-evolving field that continues to push the understanding of the natural world around us. Countless discoveries have had a tremendous impact on the world.

Newton's laws of physics, Einstein's theory of relativity, John Dalton’s atomic theory, and many more discoveries that occurred hundreds of years ago have laid the foundation for the science of today.

STEM fields have been male-dominated throughout history, but that hasn’t stopped women from trailblazing and making tremendous advancements in the field.

Below is a closer look at some of the most famous female scientists who helped to shape our understanding of the world around us.

1. Marie Curie

When talking about women in the field of science, you can’t help but mention the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, Marie Curie. Marie Curie was a Polish-French physicist and chemist that pioneered the field of radioactive studies.

She not only pioneered a field that is immensely important today, but she was also a two-time Nobel Laureate in the fields of physics and chemistry. Below is a closer look at some of her most notable accomplishments.

Radiation Research

In 1903, alongside her husband Pierre Curie, Marie received a Nobel Prize in physics for her work with radiation and for furthering the understanding of radioactivity.

In addition to her contributions to understanding radioactivity, Curie also utilized her wealth of knowledge and persistence to create mobile x-ray machines to help front-line healthcare workers during World War I.

Accomplishments in Chemistry

While working with radioactivity, Curie discovered two new elements, Polonium and Radium. Radium would soon become a pivotal element in radiation therapy for cancer.

2. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi

In the early 1980s, the world was struck by the AIDS epidemic. During the early years, little was known about this disease. No one was sure how it was transmitted or understood the specifics of how the disease progressed.

During this time, the scientific community scrambled to find a means of containing the epidemic and understanding more about the disease.

In 1983 Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and her colleagues discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), the causative agent of AIDS. Her discovery of HIV was recognized in 2008, with Françoise receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology. Her discovery would be a milestone in finding a viable treatment and containment of AIDS.

3. Rita Levi-Montalcini

Another woman who had considerable contributions to medicine is Rita Levi-Montalcini. Rita had a tumultuous life living through World War II in fascist Italy, where discrimination against her religion and race hindered her ability to work in academic settings.

This, however, did not stop her as she created her own makeshift lab to study early neurological development in chicken embryos.

Following the war, Rita teamed up with Viktor Hamburger of Washington University to further their understanding of neuroembryology. Their research would soon help them to discover a molecule known as the nerve growth factor (NGF) that stimulated the growth of nerve cells.

This important discovery would also point to the existence of other growth factors important to development.

4. Maria Goeppert Mayer

If you remember the electron shell model from your high school chemistry class, you have Maria Goeppert Mayer to thank for the model she created back in the 1950s.

The electron shell model provided a framework for understanding atomic structure — a better understanding and model of atomic structure allowed for a better understanding of chemical interactions and reactivity.

Maria Goeppert Mayer received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for discoveries with the nuclear shell structure.

5. Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkins

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkins is another Nobel Prize recipient in Chemistry. She received the Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work identifying molecular compound structures through x-ray imaging techniques.

At the time, the structure of molecules like vitamin B12 and penicillin was unknown. Dorothy brought the structure of these molecules to light in addition to the structure of other important molecules like insulin.

6. Rosalind Franklin

Understanding the molecular basis of cells is a more recent discovery; a prime example of this is that the structure of DNA wasn’t discovered until the mid-1950s.

James Watson and Francis Crick tend to be remembered as the individuals who discovered that DNA has a double helix structure since they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1963. While these individuals created a cohesive model of DNA, it couldn’t have been achieved without the contributions of a talented British geneticist named Rosalind Franklin.

Rosalind Franklin is most well known for her work in x-ray crystallography and her work to further understand the molecular structure of things like DNA, RNA, and viruses. Her most famous x-ray diffraction was that of DNA, which clearly showed that DNA had a helical structure.

These unpublished diffraction patterns were shown to Watson and Crick, who then utilized them to create their model of DNA.

7. Rachel Carson

The importance of environmental sciences is seen today with governmental bodies like the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) existing to protect the environment and the people living in these environments.

An American marine biologist named Rachel Carson drew attention to the need for environmental consideration for the health of people and the environment. Her book “Silent Spring” was the first to call out the harmful impacts of chemical pesticides and promote the conservation that has impacted the world for the better.

As a result of her findings, pesticides utilizing DDT were taken off shelves, and the EPA was soon thereafter established.

8. Gertrude Elion

At the beginning of the 1900s, drug discovery and development largely relied on trial and error as well as a little luck. The discovery of one of the most life-saving molecules, penicillin, for example, was discovered completely by accident when Alexander Fleming left a petri dish to get mouldy.

Gertrude Elion, an American biochemist, opted for a different approach to drug development that utilized a more calculated approach to creating drugs. Rather than rolling the molecular dice in hopes of creating something, Gertrude opted to look at ailments like cancer, understand their biochemical pathways, and find molecules that can interrupt them.

This rational method of drug design earned Gertrude Elion the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1988.

Gertrude’s technique allowed for a more efficient means of drug development. Gertrude and her colleague created drugs to treat leukemia, gout, malaria, and even viral infections like herpes. The development of the antiviral acyclovir ushered in a new age of drugs designed to help treat viral infections, which were once thought to be untreatable.

9. Lise Meitner

Lise Meitner was an Austrian scientist known for her collaborations with Otto Hahn, with whom she discovered the means of splitting an atom, known as nuclear fission. Lise Meitner calculated the energy released as a result of nuclear fission.

Although Lise was not recognized for the discovery of fission, she did provide insight into the amount of energy released by fission, which was important in understanding the cataclysmic level of energy release.

10. Barbara McClintock

The process of inheritance was largely a mystery for many years, and even to this day, there are things about genetics that are still a mystery. One revolutionary discovery was the discovery of jumping genes by Barbara McClintock.

Also known as transposons, these genes are able to excise themselves from the genome and insert themselves elsewhere in the genome.

Barbara initially noticed the transposition of chromosomes of corn where certain sections of chromosomes would routinely break away. Unfortunately, the significance of her finding was not acknowledged, but she was eventually recognized for her work and awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

11. Katherine Johnson

Women scientists aren’t just restricted to those who seek degrees in chemistry, biology, physics, or medicine, as is the case with Katherine Johnson and her contributions to many early NASA projects.

Katherine was one of the first African American women scientists to work at NASA and made a notable impact with her work. She is responsible for the calculations for sending astronauts into orbit and the calculations necessary to get to the moon.

In 2015, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her pioneering work and blazing a trail for women to get into STEM fields.

Conclusion

Women throughout much of history have been excluded from participating in scientific discovery and innovation, but some individuals fought back against these norms and propelled the field of science forward.

This list of 11 famous female scientists only scrapes the surface of influential women in science. There are countless other scientists that have made advancements in physics, chemistry, and cellular science, and there will be countless more as technology advances ever exponentially.

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