12. Maria Mitchell Was the First American to Discover a Comet
Maria Mitchell was born in 1818 to Quaker parents in Nantucket, Massachusetts. Because of the family’s religious beliefs, the girls were educated equally with the boys. When she was 18, she began working at the Nantucket Atheneum, where she could spend long hours reading. At night, she would make celestial observations with her father, who was an astronomer.
In 1847, Maria discovered a comet, making her the first American – male or female – to do so. It was named Miss Mitchell’s Comet. She then became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. When she was commissioned by the United States Coast Guard to make calculations, Maria Mitchell may have actually become the first woman ever appointed to a position within the United States government. She was later invited to join the faculty of Vassar College, where she had access to a 12-inch state-of-the-art telescope.
In addition to her scientific achievements, her Quaker upbringing may have led Maria also to be an ardent advocate for social justice. She participated in movements for women’s rights, especially the right to vote, as well as anti-slavery movements. Today, her home on Nantucket Island is a museum that is open to visitors.
13. Elizabeth Blackwell Created the National Health Society in the United Kingdom
When Elizabeth Blackwell was a child in the 1800s, a close family friend became terminally ill and claimed that female doctors would be able to provide better care than the male doctors that dominated the United States. That encounter made her determined to become a physician. When she applied to medical schools, all but one rejected her on the basis of her gender. However, Geneva Medical College accepted her as a joke, not believing that a woman would seriously enter the medical field. After enduring two years of harassment for being a female student, she became the first woman doctor to graduate from a medical school in the United States.
Elizabeth frequently traveled between the United States and her native England, where she raised money to build an infirmary in New York. While in England – where she was also one of the only female doctors – she created the National Health Society to advocate for good hygiene and preventative medicine. Blackwell also established an all-women medical school to go with the infirmary she had built. As a doctor, Blackwell also advocated for social reform, in areas from the abolition of prostitution to enabling more women to take up the medical profession by being accepted into medical schools.
14. Maria Montessori, Italy’s First Female Doctor, Revolutionized Childhood Education
In the late 1800s, while practicing as Italy’s only female pediatrician, Maria Montessori treated many low-income children at her free clinics. What she noticed was that these children had an intrinsic intelligence, even though they were deprived of many of the social supports that enabled wealthier children to attend school and university. She went on to become the director of a school for developmentally disabled children, where she worked to apply theories of early childhood education – which included the use of the senses and creativity – to children who were disabled. The progress that the children made inspired her to develop what we now know as the Montessori method of education.
The Italian government allowed the doctor to teach 60 young children from the slums, where she created a classroom environment that she believed was most conducive to childhood exploration. She instructed her teachers to follow the children’s lead and let them generate their own learning, rather than memorizing lessons. Within just a few years, thousands of Montessori-style schools opened, both in Europe and across the Atlantic, in America. She earned two Nobel Prize nominations for her work in education, and today, her name is synonymous with a child-centered approach to learning. Her writings are still widely used in both teaching and child-rearing, as they show adults how to create environments that are best suited to stimulate children’s natural penchant for learning, growth, and creativity.
15. Dorothy Hodgkin Discovered the Structure of Penicillin
Born in 1910 to parents who were colonial administrators in Cairo, Egypt, Dorothy Hodgkin and her siblings were mainly educated in England. Though separated by a continent, Dorothy’s mother encouraged her to pursue her interest in chemistry, particularly in the use of crystals. Dorothy worked hard to be taken seriously in a male-dominated field and was rewarded with the chance to study at the University of Oxford. She went on to do doctoral work at the University of Cambridge, where she used X-rays to study the protein structure of the pepsin molecule. She specialized in using crystals and X-rays to study the composition of biological compounds.
Following her doctoral studies in 1934, Dorothy was invited to research at Somerville College in Oxford, where she remained until she retired 33 years later. She used the resources provided to her there to begin studying the make-up of insulin, something to which she dedicated much of her career to understanding. Despite developing rheumatoid arthritis at the age of 28, she continued the tedious work of mounting tiny crystal grains onto slides so that she could study them.
In 1939, when England was on the cusp of entering World War II, she was asked to set aside her work in insulin to try to understand better the structure of penicillin, a necessary antibiotic that would save the lives of many soldiers on the battlefield. She successfully isolated the structure of the molecule, earning her an election to the Royal Society. Dorothy Hodgkin went on to discover the structure of the B12 molecule but never gave up on insulin. Finally, advances in computer technology proved sufficient that in 1969, she was able to discover the structure of an insulin molecule.
In addition to her advancements in the lab, she advocated for scientific cooperation amongst hostile parties during the Cold War.
16. Isobel Bennett Rewrote the Guide to Australia’s Coastlines
Isobel Bennett was born in Australia in 1909, a time when women were hardly expected to go into the study of science and especially not make any meaningful contributions to any discipline. She wanted desperately to study biology, but at the age of 16, her family told her that she had to go to business college and find a job. During the Great Depression, she found a job at the Associated Board for the Royal Schools of Music, but as the economic downturn took its toll, she found herself without a job.
A stroke of luck put her on a cruise ship at the same time as a famed marine biologist, Dr. Dakin, who was currently looking for a new assistant. Though she had no experience or education in the field, she was hired to work on the ship with him. With him, she began her work in studying plankton, intertidal zones, and perhaps most importantly, the Great Barrier Reef. Her findings were published alongside his, and when he took a year-long sabbatical, she filled in his teaching position. She went on to develop her own career and became one of the most essential marine biologists in the history of Australia, having even thoroughly revised the guidebook to the Australian coastlines.
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