If you flick through a science textbook or do a Google search for notable scientists in history, you’ll probably find a sea of old white men dominating the lists of award-winners and accomplishments.
So, to celebrate our upcoming Girls in STEM event, we wanted to honour some of the women whose remarkable achievements in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths have changed the world.
Here are just a few of the famous female pioneers that you should know about.
GRACE HOPPER – COMPUTER SCIENTIST & ADMIRAL
Rear Admiral Dr. Grace Hopper led an extraordinary life. Her contributions to the field of computer science are still felt within academia, industry and the military. In 1934, she became one of the first women to earn a PhD in mathematics from Yale University. During World War II she joined the US Naval Reserves and set to work programming Mark I, the first ever computer. She recognised that the development and refinement of programming languages would be integral to enable computers to be used for business and non-scientific applications. Grace headed the team that created the first compiler, which led to the creation of COBOL, a programming language that accounted for 70 percent of actively used code in the year 2000. They don’t call her ‘Amazing Grace’ for nothing!
KATHERINE JOHNSON – SPACE SCIENTIST & MATHEMATICIAN
Katherine Johnson is a distinguished African-American space scientist and mathematician. She was hired by NASA’s predecessor as a ‘computer.’ She manually carried out complex calculations to support the engineers and her expertise and inquisitive nature quickly set her apart. Often the only woman in the room, she calculated the trajectory for America’s first space trip in 1961 and went on to do the same for the moon landing in 1969. After electric computers were used to determine the trajectory of America’s first manned orbit around the Earth, Katherine was reportedly asked to double check the figures, just to be sure!
MARIE CURIE – PHYSICIST & CHEMIST
Perhaps the most famous female scientist in history, Marie Curie is known for her ground-breaking research in radioactivity. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person and only woman to win twice, and the only person to win a Nobel Prize in two different sciences. Together with her husband Pierre Curie, she discovered two new elements in 1898: polonium and radium. Her achievements also include developing the theory of radioactivity (a term that Marie herself coined), creating techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes, and building mobile radiography units (known as petites Curies) to provide X-ray services to field hospitals during World War I.
ADA LOVELACE – COMPUTER PROGRAMMER
Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician and writer most known for her work on Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. She is often regarded as the world’s first computer programmer because she recognised that the machine had applications beyond crunching numbers, and published the first algorithm intended to be carried out by a machine way back in the 1840s. Ada was a visionary: she predicted that machines like the Analytical Engine could be used to compose music, produce graphics, and be useful to science. Of course, that all came true— 100 years later!
BARBARA MCCLINTOCK – CYTOGENETICIST
Barbara McClintock was a scientist whose discovery of ‘jumping genes’ in the 1940s and 1950s won her the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine. After achieving a PhD in botany at Cornell University, Barbara began working on the chromosomal analysis of corn (maize). She used a microscope and a staining technique to visualise individual corn chromosomes and was thus able to demonstrate many fundamental genetic concepts. Her work was ahead of its time and was considered too radical—or was simply ignored—by her fellow scientists for many years. It wasn’t until the 1970s, after researchers determined that the genetic material was DNA, did the scientific community begin to support Barbara’s findings.
ROSALIND FRANKLIN – CHEMIST
Rosalind Franklin was a British chemist, best known for her role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, and for her pioneering use of X-ray diffraction. Although James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins won the Nobel Prize for determining the structure of DNA, their discovery relied on Rosalind’s work. Born in 1920 in London, Rosalind earned a PhD in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. She learned X-ray crystallography techniques while in Paris, which she later applied to DNA fibres. One of her photographs provided key insights into DNA structure. Other scientists used it as evidence to support their model and took credit for the discovery. Her vital contributions were only acknowledged much later, after her death in 1958.
HEDY LAMARR – INVENTOR & MOVIE STAR
Film star by day and inventor by night, Hedy Lamarr was a pioneer in the field of wireless communications. Her passion for inventing and her horror at the events of World War II compelled her to work with George Antheil to develop a spread-spectrum radio. It enabled radio signals to ‘hop’ between different frequencies more or less randomly, meaning signals were difficult to decode. They were granted a patent in 1942 but the Navy refused to take their idea seriously. The implications of their discovery were not fully understood until years later. The pair were finally honoured in 1997 with a Pioneer Award from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
RACHEL CARSON – MARINE BIOLOGIST & CONSERVATIONIST
Rachel Carson had a rare combination of talents. Both a brilliant marine biologist and a superb nature writer, she catalysed the global environmental movement with her influential book Silent Spring in 1962. The publication is widely regarded as the most important environmental book of the 20th Century; it outlined the dangers of chemical pesticides, which inspired the grassroots movement that ultimately led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). She is now remembered as an early activist who worked to preserve the Earth for future generations.
So there you have it! Against all odds, these extraordinary women persevered and made a difference by pursuing careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths. Could you follow in their footsteps one day? Find out more with Girls in STEM.