In honor of Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating some of the women who have made significant advances in STEM throughout history. It would be impossible to list them all, but these 10 women deserve recognition for their labors and contributions to the fields of math, science, technology, and engineering. Without further ado here is our list of 10 of the greatest women in STEM in no particular order.
Who? Hypatia’s entry to our list of great women in STEM might appear to some as tenuous. After all, her work was not quite what we would define as STEM today. Forgotten by the modern world for many centuries, her memory is honored here. Hypatia was a prolific polymath in Roman Alexandria. The time and her life are depicted in the film Agora, which is well worth a watch. Hypatia spent her days as a Greek mathematician, astronomer, and philosopher in what was then the Byzantine Empire. She was the head of the Neoplatonic school at Alexandria, where she taught philosophy and astronomy. Murdered by a mob of Christians in 415 CE, her life was tragically cut short.
2. Marie Curie
Marie Skłodowska Curie is the only woman in history to win two Nobel Prizes. She was awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1903 and the prize in chemistry in 1911. Her work on radioactivity has been of paramount importance to humankind. She gained her doctorate in 1903, and after her husband’s tragic death in 1906, she took his position as the Professor of General Physics in Sorbonne, Paris, in 1906. She was the first woman to become a professor at the University of Paris. She was also appointed as the director of the Curie Laboratory in the Radium Institute of the University of Paris, founded in 1914. Her obsession and thirst for discovery for the subject of radioactivity ultimately led to her untimely death — a sacrifice that has not been forgotten.
3. Rosalind Franklin
Rosalind Franklin is best known for her work on X-ray diffraction studies, which would eventually lead to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA. Her infamous Photo 51 led to the elucidation of the structure in 1962. However, she wasn’t recognized directly for the findings, and many believe she was robbed of the well-deserved credit by her male colleagues.
In 1951, she was a research associate at King’s College in London where Maurice Wilkins was leading a research group studying the structure of DNA. He showed researchers James Watson and Francis Crick Franklin’s Photo 51 without her knowledge, and the photo ended up being the key to deciphering the structure. Still, only Watson, Crick, and Wilkins received the 1962 Nobel Prize in physiology or medicine for their work. Watson himself later suggested that she should be awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Sadly the Nobel Committee has a rule that it does not make posthumous nominations and Franklin had died by that time.
3. Lise Meitner
Lise Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish scientist who worked on the subject of radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner and her team were the first to discover nuclear fission. She refused to work on the Manhattan Project, saying, “I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”
She spent most of her career in Berlin and became the first woman to become a full physics professor at the University of Berlin. Continuing this position became very difficult during the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s. She ultimately fled to Sweden and became a Swedish citizen.
Element 109 was named meitnerium in her honor.
4. Gertrude B. Elion
Gertrude B. Elion shared the 1988 Nobel Prize in Physiology with George Hitchings and Sir James Black, for their methods of rational drug design for the development of new drugs. The method focused on understanding the target of the drug rather than using trial and error. These techniques led to the development of the HIV drug, AZT. She also developed the first immunosuppressive drug, azathioprine, used for organ transplants.
5. Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace
This esteemed entry on our list was an English mathematician and writer. She is mainly known for her work on Charles Babbage’s mechanical, general-purpose computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes include the first algorithm that was intended for the use of the machine. She is, therefore, credited as being the very first computer programmer.
6. Jocelyn Bell Burnell
Burnell discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967 using a radio telescope she helped to build. After weeks of analysis, Bell noticed some unusual markings on her chart paper that were the result of a radio source too fast and regular to be a quasar. In February of 1968, news of the discovery made by Bell was published in the journal Nature.
Sadly excluded from the Nobel prize won by her supervisor Anthony Hewish and Martin Ryle, her work is honored here. Many prominent physicists, including Sir Fred Hoyle, criticized the unfair decision.
51 years after the discovery, Bell Burnell was awarded a $3-million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics — which she donated to a charity in the UK whose mission is to support physics graduate students from under-represented groups.
7. Barbara McClintock
McClintock was an American scientist and cytogeneticist who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1983. After gaining her Ph.D. in Botany at Cornell University in 1927, she started her career as the leader in the development of maize cytogenetics, a field that would dominate the rest of her life. Her study of corn allowed her to demonstrate meiosis and the role of telomeres and centromeres on chromosomes. Her work also enabled her to show that genes are responsible for turning physical characteristics on and off. McClintock was recognized as the leader in her field, acquired prestigious fellowships, and was elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences in 1944.
8. Chien-Shiung Wu
Wu was an American experimental physicist who made significant contributions to nuclear physics. Wu was a member of the Manhattan Project, working at the Substitute Alloy Materials Lab at Columbia University, focusing on radiation detectors. Her work helped her to later develop the process of separating uranium metal into Uranium-235 and Uranium-238 isotopes by gaseous diffusion. She is most famous for her Wu experiment, which contradicted the law of conservation of parity. Her discoveries resulted in her colleagues Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1957. However, Wu was not completely overlooked; she was awarded the inaugural Wolf Prize in Physics in 1978.
9. Dian Fossey
Fossey’s life has been famously depicted in the 1988 film Gorillas in the Mist, which is an adaptation of her book of the same title. Fossey’s contributions to zoology, primatology, and anthropology are second to none. Dian spent 18 years studying mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Her research and conservation work largely helped reduce the downward population trend in mountain gorillas, saving them from extinction. Sadly, she was murdered in 1985, a case that remains unsolved.
10. Rachel Carson
Last but by no means least, the great Rachel Carson. Carson is often credited with starting the grassroots environmental movement. She is also credited with the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Carson was an American marine biologist and conservationist. She began her career as an aquatic biologist for the US Fisheries Bureau and became a full-time writer in the 50s. Her best-selling book was the award-winning “The Sea Around Us” which was well received. Later in her career, she turned her attention to conservation, especially concerned with the use of human-made pesticides like DDT. Her book “Silent Spring” helped lead to the ban on DDT use and inspired the environmental movement.