Ten Historic Female Scientists You Should Know
Before Marie Curie, these women dedicated their lives to science and made significant advances
- By Sarah Zielinski
- Smithsonian.com, September 20, 2011, Subscribe
When it comes to the topic of women in science, Marie Curie usually dominates the conversation. After all, she discovered two elements, was the first women to win a Nobel Prize, in 1903, and was the first person to win a second Nobel, in 1911. But Curie was not the first female scientist. Many other brilliant, dedicated and determined women have pursued science over the years.
Emilie du Chatelet (1706 – 1749)
Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol, married the marquis du Chatelet in 1725. She lived the life of a courtier and bore three children. But at age 27, she began studying mathematics seriously and then branched into physics. This interest intensified as she began an affair with the philosopher Voltaire, who also had a love of science. Their scientific collaborations—they outfitted a laboratory at du Chatelet’s home, Chateau de Cirey, and, in a bit of a competition, each entered an essay into a contest on the nature of fire (neither won)—outlasted their romance. Du Chatelet’s most lasting contribution to science was her French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today. At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following complications during the birth of their child.
Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)
Herschel was little more than the household drudge for her parents in Hanover, Germany (she would later describe herself as the “Cinderella of the family”), when her older brother, William, brought her to England in 1772 to run his household in Bath. After she mastered the art of singing—to accompany William, who was the organist for the Octagon Chapel—her brother switched careers and went into astronomy. Caroline followed. In addition to assisting her brother in his observations and in the building of telescopes, Caroline became a brilliant astronomer in her own right, discovering new nebulae and star clusters. She was the first woman to discover a comet (she discovered eight in total) and the first to have her work published by the Royal Society. She was also the first British woman to get paid for her scientific work, when William, who had been named the king’s personal astronomer after his discovery of Uranus in 1781, persuaded his patron to reward his assistant with an annual salary. After William’s death in 1822, Caroline retired to Hanover. There she continued her astronomical work, compiling a catalogue of nebulae—the Herschels’ work had increased the number of known star clusters from 100 to 2,500. She died in 1848 at age 97 after receiving many honors in her field, including a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)
In 1811, Mary Anning’s brother spotted what he thought was a crocodile skeleton in a seaside cliff near the family’s Lyme Regis, England, home. He charged his 11-year-old sister with its recovery, and she eventually dug out a skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for £23. This find was no croc, though, and was eventually named Ichthyosaurus, the “fish-lizard.” Thus began Anning’s long career as a fossil hunter. In addition to ichthyosaurs, she found long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, possibly thousands, of other fossils that helped scientists to draw a picture of the marine world 200 million to 140 million years ago during the Jurassic. She had little formal education and so taught herself anatomy, geology, paleontology and scientific illustration. Scientists of the time traveled from as far away as New York City to Lyme Regis to consult and hunt for fossils with Anning.
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)
Intrigued by the x’s and y’s in the answer to a math question in a ladies’ fashion magazine, 14-year-old Mary Fairfax of Scotland delved into the study of algebra and mathematics, defying her father’s injunction against such pursuits. Her studies were sidetracked by a marriage, in 1804, to a Russian Navy captain, but after his death she returned to Edinburgh and became involved in intellectual circles, associating with people such as the writer Sir Walter Scott and the scientist John Playfair, and resumed her studies in math and science. Her next husband, William Somerville, whom she wed in 1812, supported these efforts, and after they moved to London, Mary became host to her own intellectual circle, which included the astronomer John Herschel and the inventor Charles Babbage. She began experimenting on magnetism and produced a series of writings on astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. She translated astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, and although she was unsatisfied with the result, it was used as a textbook for much of the next century. Somerville was one of the first two women, along with Caroline Herschel, to be named honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.
Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)
Young Maria Mitchell learned to observe the stars from her father, who used stellar observations to check the accuracy of chronometers for Nantucket, Massachusetts, whalers and taught his children to use a sextant and reflecting telescope. When Mitchell was 12, she helped her father record the time of an eclipse. And at 17, she had already begun her own school for girls, teaching them science and math. But Mitchell rocketed to the forefront of American astronomy in 1847 when she spotted a blurry streak—a comet—through her telescope. She was honored around the world, earning a medal from the king of Denmark, and became the first woman to be elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 Mitchell traveled to Europe, where she visited observatories and met with intellectuals, including Mary Somerville. Mitchell would write: “I could not help but admire [her] as a woman. The ascent of the steep and rugged path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing room circle; the hours of devotion to close study have not been incompatible with the duties of wife and mother.” Mitchell became the first female astronomy professor in the United States, when she was hired by Vassar College in 1865. There she continued her observations, particularly those of the Sun, traveling up to 2,000 miles to witness an eclipse.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
When Lise Meitner finished school at age 14, she was barred from higher education, as were all girls in Austria. But, inspired by the discoveries of William Röntgen and Henri Becquerel, she was determined to study radioactivity. When she turned 21, women were finally allowed into Austrian universities. Two years of tutoring preceded her enrollment at the University of Vienna; there she excelled in math and physics and earned her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she collaborated with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three qualities were strikes against her), she was excluded from the main labs and lectures and allowed to work only in the basement. In 1912, the pair moved to a new university and Meitner had better lab facilities. Though their partnership was split up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, they continued to collaborate. Meitner continued her work in Sweden and after Hahn discovered that uranium atoms were split when bombarded with neutrons, she calculated the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which eventually led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame scientists for the use to which war technicians have put our discoveries,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, overlooked by the Nobel committee, refused to return to Germany after the war and continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.
Irène Curie-Joliot (1897 – 1956)
The elder daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, Irène followed her parents’ footsteps into the lab. The thesis for her 1925 doctor of science was on the alpha rays of polonium, one of the two elements her mother discovered. The next year, she married Frédéric Joliot, one of her mother’s assistants at the Radium Institute in Paris. Irène and Frédéric continued their collaboration inside the laboratory, pursuing research on the structure of the atom. In 1934, they discovered artificial radioactivity by bombarding aluminum, boron and magnesium with alpha particles to produce isotopes of nitrogen, phosphorus, silicon and aluminum. They received the Nobel Prize in chemistry the next year, making Marie and Irène the first parent-child couple to have independently won Nobels. All those years working with radioactivity took a toll, however, and Irène died of leukemia in 1956.
Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
While studying botany at Cornell University in the 1920s, Barbara McClintock got her first taste of genetics and was hooked. As she earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees and moved into postdoctoral work, she pioneered the study of genetics of maize (corn) cells. She pursued her research at universities in California, Missouri and Germany before finding a permanent home at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. It was there that, after observing the patterns of coloration of maize kernels over generations of plants, she determined that genes could move within and between chromosomes. The finding didn’t fit in with conventional thinking on genetics, however, and was largely ignored; McClintock began studying the origins of maize in South America. But after improved molecular techniques that became available in the 1970s and early 1980s confirmed her theory and these “jumping genes” were found in microorganisms, insects and even humans, McClintock was awarded a Lasker Prize in 1981 and Nobel Prize in 1983.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Dorothy Crowfoot (Hodgkin, after her 1937 marriage) was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a pair of British archaeologists. She was sent home to England for school, where she was one of only two girls who were allowed to study chemistry with the boys. At 18, she enrolled in one of Oxford’s women’s colleges and studied chemistry and then moved to Cambridge to study X-ray crystallography, a type of imaging that uses X-rays to determine a molecule’s three-dimensional structure. She returned to Oxford in 1934, where she would spend most of her working life, teaching chemistry and using X-ray crystallography to study interesting biological molecules. She spent years perfecting the technique, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1964, and determined the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. In 2010, 16 years after her death, the British Royal Mail celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society by issuing stamps with the likenesses of 10 of the society’s most illustrious members, including Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin; Hodgkin was the only woman in the group.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
James Watson and Francis Crick get credit for determining the structure of DNA, but their discovery relied on the work of Rosalind Franklin. As a teenager in the 1930s, Franklin attended one of the few girls’ schools in London that taught physics and chemistry, but when she told her father that she wanted to be a scientist, he rejected the idea. He eventually relented and she enrolled at Cambridge University, receiving a doctorate in physical chemistry. She learned techniques for X-ray crystallography while in Paris, returning to England in 1951 to work in the laboratory of John Randall at King’s College, London. There she made X-ray images of DNA. She had nearly figured out the molecule’s structure when Maurice Wilkins, another researcher in Randall’s lab who was also studying DNA, showed one of Franklin’s X-ray images to James Watson. Watson quickly figured out the structure was a double helix and, with Francis Crick, published the finding in the journal Nature. Watson, Crick and Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their discovery. Franklin, however, had died of ovarian cancer in 1958.
Subscribe now for more of Smithsonian's coverage on history, science and nature.