Image Credits: NASA
March is Women’s History Month—a month of celebrating women worldwide. There are countless females who, whether famous or not, we should be grateful to as they dedicated their lives to changing the world in ways we may never understand. Here are fourteen females who have made a lasting impact on the world through their scientific discoveries.
Born in the 19th century, Blackwell lived at a time in history when most women stayed home and raised their children. Blackwell, however, took a different course in life. She was the first woman to graduate from medical school, to become a doctor in the United States and the first woman to appear on the United Kingdom medical register. As a pioneer of promoting the education of women in medicine in the United States, Blackwell has inspired thousands of women to serve others through medicine.
Curie, a Polish-born French physicist and chemist, is best known for her contributions to radioactivity. She received the Nobel Prize twice: once in physics in 1903 and another time in chemistry in 1911. In addition to research, Curie also taught. She was the first woman to hold the position of professor of General Physics in the Faculty of Sciences at Sorbonne, the historical house of the University of Paris.
Elion was a biophysicist and pharmacologist, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology of Medicine in 1988. After losing her grandfather to cancer, Elion decided no one should have to suffer the pain of losing a loved one to disease. This passion led her to help develop new drugs including the first treatment for leukemia in organ transplant and the first immunosuppressive agent. Her work led to the development of AZT, the AIDS drug.
Franklin was a biophysicist who played a key role in developing a modern understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Thanks to Franklin and her work, Watson, Crick, and Williams discovered the double helix structure of DNA. In 1962, four years after Franklin’s passing, the trio received a Nobel Prize.
Following her brother into the field of astronomy, Herschel became a brilliant astronomer, discovering new nebulae and star clusters. Herschel is a woman of many accomplishments: the first woman to discover a comet, the first woman to have her work published by the Royal Society, and the first British woman to get paid for her scientific work. In addition to her many firsts, Herschel compiled a catalogue of nebulae and received many honors in her field, including a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
Not many ladies can boast about being 1 of 2 girls allowed to study chemistry with boys—but Hodgkin can! At eighteen years old, Hodgkin enrolled in Oxford’s women’s colleges and studied chemistry; she went on to Cambridge and studied x-ray crystallography. After years of studying biological molecules, she won a Nobel Prize and determined the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12, and insulin. Several years after her death, the British Royal Mail Society issued stamps of different intellectuals, one with her likeness—she was the only woman to have had her image on a stamp.
Considered the first computer programmer, Lovelace, daughter of renowned poet Lord Byron, called herself “the scientific poet.” Lovelace was a mathematician and writer best known for her work on Babbage’s early mechanical generated computer, the Analytical Engine. Her notes on the Engine are considered the first algorithm for implementation on computers. To this day, Lovelace’s legacy continues: Ada Lovelace Day is celebrated annually in October to raise the profile of women in STEM fields.
The eldest daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, Irene followed in the footsteps of her parents. The thesis for her 1925 doctor of science studied the alpha rays of polonium, one of the elements her mother discovered. Irene married Frederic, one of her mother’s assistants, and the two collaborated on research of atomic structure. In 1934, the couple discovered artificial radioactivity. They received a Nobel Prize in chemistry a year later. Marie and Irene are the first parent-child couple to have won Nobel Prizes independently of each other.
Meitner was responsible for discovering that uranium atoms split when bombarded with neutrons, which led to the creation of the atomic bomb. As a Jewish woman living in Nazi Germany, she was left out of nuclear fission published findings. In 1944, her lab partner won a Nobel Prize for contributions to splitting the atom. Although Meitner was unfairly treated in her time, the discoveries she made are not forgotten.
When Mitchell was a young girl, her father taught her to observe the stars. At age 12, she helped her dad record the time of an eclipse. Being only 17, she began a school for girls, teaching them mathematics and science. In 1847, she shook the world of science: she spotted a comet through her telescope. Mitchell received worldwide honor for her sighting—the king of Denmark awarded her a medal, she was the first woman elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was the first female astronomy professor in the U.S.
Montalcini, Nobel Prize winning neurologist, discovered chemical tools the body uses for cell growth and nerve networks. Her discoveries opened the door to the study of how these processes can be destroyed in certain diseases. Living in Nazi Germany in World War II, non-Aryan Italians were banned from professional degrees; however, this did not stop Montalcini. Despite Mussolini’s manifesto, this determined woman studied chicken embryos in her basement. Her years of study led her to find a protein which attracts nerve growth from nearby developing cells.
After being recruited to Columbia University in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan project, Wu conducted research on radiation detection and uranium enrichment. She eventually overturned a law of parity with the results of her research. Despite her critical role, she was left out of a Nobel Prize. Although she was denied the prize, Wu remains one of the best-known experimental physicists of her time.
When Somerville was fourteen, she eagerly began studying algebra and mathematics, despite her father’s opinion of her pursuits. Somerville became involved in intellectual circles, and eventually began to host her own circles, with the support of her husband, William. She experimented on magnetism and produced a series on astronomy, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Alongside Caroline Herschel, Somerville was named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society.
14. Kathryn Sullivan
A geologist, former NASA astronaut, and member of three space shuttle missions, Sullivan was also the first American woman to walk in space. Over the course of her missions, she logged 532 hours in space. Sullivan has served as the president and CEO of COSI Columbus, an interactive space center. In 2004, this remarkable female joined the Astronaut Hall of Fame.