We all know that women are just as capable as men of excelling in subjects like math, science, astronomy, chemistry, and physics. But it wasn’t until a few decades ago that women were truly welcomed into these fields. In fact, science wasn’t considered women’s work at all. But that didn’t mean that there weren’t daring women who were willing to go against convention and pave their own path in these male-dominated fields. Take a peek at some of these unsung scholars of math and science who made it possible for much of the scientific progress and collective knowledge that we have today.
Caroline Herschel (1750-1848)
In an era in which a woman’s place was limited to the home and educating girls was seen as wasteful, Caroline Herschel defied convention and became one of the most prominent astronomers of her time. A self-described “Cinderella,” Herschel started out as her own family’s private maid. She managed to escape a life of drudgery when her brother, William Herschel, brought her with him to England where she eventually assisted his work in astronomy. He encouraged Caroline’s interest in the stars and supported her studies. As an astronomer, Caroline Herschel contributed to the discovery of eight comets and 14 nebulae—including the Andromeda nebula.
Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie is one of the better-known historical figures for women in science. This Polish chemist and physicist worked with her husband Pierre and discovered polonium and radium, but Curie is probably best known for her work with uranium. She and her husband further expanded on the concept of radioactivity and earned a joint Nobel Prize in physics. She is seen as a leader in studying the use of radiation to treat tumors in cancer patients. However, Curie would go on to also win another Nobel Prize in chemistry for her work with radium.
Mae C. Jemison (1956- )
Just in case you think that the only relevant female scientists are from a bygone era, Mae C. Jemison will change your mind. Jemison is best known as the first black woman in space. She joined the NASA space program in 1987 and enjoyed her space flight in 1992 on the Endeavor Shuttle. Prior to joining the elite astronaut ranks, Mae received her medical degree from the Cornell Medical College (now the Weill Medical College of Cornell University). Additionally, she served in the Peace Corps for three years from 1983 to 1986, prior to joining NASA.
Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997)
When you think about the Manhattan Project, you probably don’t think that women contributed greatly to its success, let alone an Asian-American woman. But they were there. Chien-Shiung Wu was a critical member of the team and helped to drive discoveries centered on separating raw uranium metal into uranium-235 and uranium-238 isotopes. Within the scientific community, Wu is best known for conducting the Wu Experiment, which disproved previous theories around the law of conservation of parity. Chien-Shiung Wu was affectionately nicknamed the Chinese Marie Curie and awarded the very first Wolf Prize in Physics, and in 2021 she will be featured on her own USPS stamp.
Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012)
This Italian neurophysiologist earned a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking discovery of the Nerve Growth Factor. Her research centered around understanding how degenerative diseases like dementia and cancer can negatively impact nerve growth and create complications. Levi-Montalcini continued to work even into her later years. In 1962, Rita founded the Cell Biology Institute in Rome, Italy. She later founded the European Brain Research Institute in 2002 and served as its first president.
Sunita L. Williams (1965- )
Can you break records in space? Yes, you can! Sunita L. Williams is another famous NASA astronaut who created a long line of records during her time on the International Space Station (ISS). In total, Sunita traveled to the ISS on four separate expeditions, serving as a flight engineer on Expedition 32 and a commander on Expedition 33. She once held the record for the most spacewalks by a woman (seven) and the most time spent on spacewalks by a woman with 50 hours and 40 minutes accrued cumulatively.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
What’s in a little DNA? We might still be asking that question if it weren’t for Rosalind Franklin. This young scientist is credited with helping discover not just the structural composition of DNA but that there is more than one type of DNA. Thanks to Rosalind, we now know that there are DNA and B-type DNA, which is found within a cell’s structure. While Franklin is best known for her work with DNA, this biophysicist also worked tirelessly in the study of x-ray technology and molecular structures.
Women Leading the Way in Science
So, the next time someone asks, “What have women done in science?” you can respond with facts. Women have been leading the charge in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) long before this popular acronym was coined. And thanks to the tireless work of the ladies in this article and those who weren’t mentioned, our world has access to some of the best scientific technology, knowledge, and cutting-edge research that can improve everyone’s quality of life.