Possibly the most famous female scientist in history, Marie Curie was the first female to win a Nobel Prize and the first person of either sex to earn the honor twice. She and her husband, Pierre Curie, built on the work of previous physicists regarding the properties of uranium, particularly regarding X-rays. Her discoveries led to her getting her first Nobel Prize.
The couple went on to discover a new element, polonium – named after Marie’s native country, Poland – and then isolated what we now know as radium. The discoveries earned her her second Nobel prize. When Pierre tragically died in an accident, Marie filled in his teaching post at Sorbonne, becoming the first female professor.
When World War I broke out, she devoted all of her time to work in radioactivity and X-rays to help soldiers who had been injured. Unfortunately, at the time the dangers of radiation were not known. Marie was known to carry around test tubes filled with radioactive substances without the precautionary measures that physicists today take. Her work in radioactivity may have contributed, if not caused, her death from aplastic anemia.
Marie had two daughters with Pierre, Irene and Eve. Irene followed in her mother’s footsteps and also became a Nobel laureate. Today, “Madame Curie” is seen as a top role model for aspiring female scientists.
In Ancient Egypt, women were not always treated as second-class citizens. In fact, during the second dynasty of the third millennium BCE, Merit Ptah was a female scientist who served as a physician in the royal court. Inscriptions bearing her name in the Valley of the Kings indicate that she actually attended to the pharaoh himself. During this period, women frequently were able to hold positions in the healthcare field, not only as midwives (an occupation that was traditionally only held by women) but also as physicians. In fact, some medical schools were exclusively for women!
Together with her contemporary, Peseshet, Merit Ptah is considered to be the first female physician and possibly one of the earliest identified female scientists of all time. Few details are known about Merit Ptah’s life, but she is known to have had a son, who became a high priest; this fact indicates that she was from a wealthier family. It is unclear whether or not she made any discoveries or contributions unique to the field of health care, but her position as a doctor in the pharaoh’s court, being a female, is in itself a contribution to the part of women in science. There is a picture of her in the Valley of the Kings, which ascribes to her the prestigious role of “Chief Physician.” Today, a crater on the planet Venus is named in her honor.
6. Hildegard of Bingen Founded Natural Sciences in Germany
Hildegard of Bingen grew up in a monastery, having been a sickly child and given to the monastery as an offering to God by her parents. In the monastery, she learned how to read and write, tend to plants and animals, care for the sick, and play music; many of these skills, especially literacy, were exceptionally rare for both men and women. She also claimed to have mystical visions from a very early age and is remembered for both her contributions to the church and theology, as well as to natural sciences. However, Hildegard probably saw her contributions to the church and science as being complementary to each other.
Hildegard was well-known for her abilities as a healer, having drawn from passages in the Bible regarding the usefulness of all things on the earth. She used herbal remedies, tinctures, and even gemstones to promote physical healing, which she believed was a component of spiritual healing. Her book Physica describes the effects of all kinds of plants and animals on the human body, indicating how food, herbs, and the like can all be used for medicinal purposes. She even wrote on human psychology, again from the perspective of promoting spiritual wholeness. Because Hildegard wrote in the language of her people, German, rather than in the typical Latin, her work was able to influence large numbers of people.
7. Margaret Cavendish Helped Pave the Way for the Scientific Revolution
Margaret Cavendish was born into British aristocracy in 1623. She spent much time in France due to political problems within the English royal family. Cavendish was famous for her work in philosophy, ethics, and science. As a philosopher and ethicist, she was staunchly in favor of promoting women’s rights and was even one of the first opponents of animal testing. Margaret Cavendish was outspoken about the fact that women, though possessing the same intelligence as men, were disregarded in areas such as scientific learning. As such, she helped begin to break down barriers that enabled the women’s rights movement to start.
As a scientist, Margaret Cavendish rejected many of the ideas of Aristotle in favor of so-called “natural philosophies,” particularly the mechanistic notion that all things are essentially the sum of their parts. Her thoughts, including a vitalistic embrace of fields such as atomic theory and human anatomy, helped pave the way for the scientific revolution. She wrote several books on both philosophy and natural sciences and even wrote a science fiction novel. She was the first woman to attend a meeting at the Royal Society of London, a regular gathering of scientists and philosophers, and there engaged with such brilliant minds as Rene Descartes, Thomas Hobbes, and Robert Boyle.
Maria Winkelmann was born in Germany in 1670. Her father broke with many traditions of the time and, believing that girls should be every bit as educated as boys, provided his daughter with the best education he could. Both of Maria’s parents died when she was 13, but her uncle went on to continue her education. She was also friends with a local astronomer, Christoph Arnold, who taught her astronomy and took her on as an unofficial apprentice. She married the famous German astronomer Gottfried Kirch, who provided further education in astronomy for his wife.
At the time, women scientists were recognized as being subordinate to men. Maria worked beside her husband and made discoveries that helped create almanacs, which were used in both farming and navigation. She also studied the aurora borealis and the alignment of the planets. Gottfried von Leibniz, a prominent German scientist, presented her to the royal court for her work in being able to identify sunspots. Winkelmann became one of the only female scientists of her time to publish works under her own name rather than that of a male cohort.
Unfortunately, following her husband’s death, Winkelmann was unable to secure funding for her work due to her gender. She fell into a period of depression but continued to write about her astronomical findings.
9. Mary Wortley Montagu Advocated for Smallpox Inoculation
Born into the British aristocracy in 1689, Lady Mary was raised by her grandmother and father, who educated her. She did not particularly like her governess, who was privately hired to teach her and her siblings, so she often stole away to the family’s private library, where she taught herself many of the subjects in which she was interested. Lady Mary became a prolific writer early on, as well as an ardent feminist who firmly believed that women should be given the same opportunities and have the same rights as men.
Lady Mary married Edward Montagu and became known among the upper class of London for her beauty and quick wit. While there, her brother died of smallpox, and she contracted the disease but survived. Her husband was appointed to the embassy in Turkey, where they lived together for a couple of years. Nearly a century before the smallpox vaccine was first invented in Europe Lady Mary observed how Turkish women inoculated themselves and their children against the dreaded disease: they would take the pus from someone who had a mild case, scratch the skin of a healthy person, and apply the discharge, which contained the virus. This process is known as variolation.
During the 1720s, a smallpox outbreak tore through London. Lady Mary had her entire family variolated, and all of them survived. She advocated for the process to be administered on a larger scale, but her efforts were met with criticism. However, five prisoners on death row chose to be variolated rather than executed, and all five of them survived. At the end of the century, a new procedure was invented for vaccinated against smallpox, and it became very popular. However, Lady Mary’s campaign for variolation saved many lives during the London outbreak.
10. Charlotta Frohlich Pioneered Advances in Agriculture
Charlotta Frohlich was born in Sweden at the end of the seventeenth century. She had a very strict Luthern childhood, which she despised, but she was thoroughly educated in subjects such as history, reading, writing, and religion. This knowledge set her apart from many other women of her age, who were mostly illiterate and certainly not educated in social sciences. She developed a love of agriculture and was the owner of an estate, where she made pig iron with a blast furnace. Her inventions in agriculture led to her being the first female scientist published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.
Particularly unusual for a woman of her time (and still seen as unusual for women of our time, as well) was her penchant for debating politics. A woman’s place was believed to be at home, where her greatest duty was seen as that of raising children and caring for her husband. However, Charlotta ventured out into the public sphere and engaged in debates on politics, economic theories, and state policies. Perhaps the controversial nature of a woman participating in such discussion led her to write mainly under pen names. In addition to her writings on political science, economic science, and agriculture, she wrote poetry.
11. Caroline Herschel Was Behind Many of Her Brother’s Discoveries
William Herschel was one of the most significant and influential astronomers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Born in Germany, he traveled with his sister, Caroline, to Britain to pursue a career in music and later astronomy; he served as the private court astronomer of King George III. Herschel built his own telescope, which allowed him to discover moons of Saturn and Uranus, as well as double stars and nebulae. He even found that Mars has individual seasons, at a time when the view of the universe was still very earth-centered.
Behind each of his discoveries was his sister. Caroline Herschel kept up William’s house, and during that time, she made many of the calculations that were necessary for his studies of the heavens. She was eventually recognized by the king as assistant to her brother and awarded a yearly stipend of £50. She went on to present a catalog of stars and nebulae that had been left out of British Catalogue, as well as errata contained within it. Her career continued well after her brother’s death, causing her to be recognized as an astronomer in her own right. Caroline Herschel was later awarded the gold star from the Astronomical Society for her revisions of the organization’s work.
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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