Long-time Science & Tech readers may recognize this article premise from a piece I wrote last year for International Women’s Day. Well, here at the Muse, we will again acknowledge the day again in the same fashion, and unfortunately the scientific world remains rife with examples of overlooked women scientists who deserve their moment in the spotlight.
Name: Caroline Herschel
Accomplishments: She was the first woman to discover a comet; she discovered 8 in total. She was the first woman honoured and have her work published by the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as the first British woman to be paid for her scientific work, as assistant to her brother William, who was named the King’s personal astronomer after his discovery of Uranus in in 1781.
Snub: Often struggled for independence from her overbearing family, especially her older brother, who overshadowed her throughout her life.
Name: Irène Curie-Joliot
Accomplishments: The eldest daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie, Irène followed in her parents’ footsteps into the laboratory, collaborating throughout her life with her husband Frédéric Joliot, one of her mother’s assistants at the Radium Institute in Paris. Together they received the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of artificial radiation.
Snub: Obviously overshadowed by her more-famous parents. Also, no points for guessing how she died (spoilers: it was leukemia).
Name: Barbara McClintock
Accomplishments: Proved the link between chromosomal crossover during meiosis and the recombination of genetic traits. Produced the first genetic map of maize, linking specific regions of the chromosome to the expression of certain physical traits.
Snub: Her discovery of genetic transposition, or “jumping genes”, in the 1940s was largely ignored, since it did not fit with conventional understanding of genetics at the time. However, improved molecular imaging techniques would later vindicate her research, and she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983. She remains the only woman to receive an unshared Nobel prize in that category.
Name: Elizabeth Blackwell
Accomplishments: First woman to receive an MD in the United States in 1849, as well as the first woman on the UK Medical Register. Went on to promote the education of women in medicine, as well as various social and moral reforms in the US and UK.
Snub: Was rejected from practicing at many hospitals due to her gender—her first post after getting her MD was under the condition that she be treated as a “student midwife”, not a physician. While treating a patient she contracted an infection that required her to have her left eye surgically extracted, which destroyed her hopes of becoming a surgeon.
Name: Mary Anning
Accomplishments: Discovered the first ichthyosaur skeleton with her brother at age 11, later becoming a commercial fossil hunter. Discovered the first complete plesiosaur skeletons, the first pterodactyl skeleton located outside of Germany, and contributed to many significant developments in prehistoric marine ecology.
Snub: Although she was well known and oft-consulted in western geological circles, she did not always receive full credit for her discoveries, and because of her gender was not eligible to join the Geological Society of London. Struggled financially throughout her life before dying from breast cancer at age 47. Only one of her scientific writings was ever published during her lifetime — an extract from a letter to the editor of the Magazine of Natural History, which she wrote in 1839, questioning one of its claims.
Name: Rear Admiral Grace Hopper
Field: Computer Science
Accomplishments: Invented the first compiler for a computer programming language. Popularised the idea of machine-independent programming languages, leading to the development of COBOL (of which many of the programmers were her former employees). Advocated for reforms to the US Navy computing databases, which would lead to significant convergence among the programming languages of most major computer vendors after these standards were adopted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in the 1980s.
Snub: Another happy ending for the computer scientist! Dubbed “Amazing Grace” by her colleagues in the Navy, Hopper ascended up the ranks to the admiralty, having both a missile destroyer (the USS Hopper) and a supercomputer (the Cray XE6 “Hopper”) named for her. She died of natural causes at age 85 and was interred with full military honours at Arlington National Cemetery, and was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2016.