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.