Women have faced systematic hurdles and gender discrimination throughout history. Despite all the challenges, women have played an important part in human scientific growth. On the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, take time to learn about and honour these eight women scientists who contributed immensely to the scientific achievements.
Maria Merian (1647 - 1717)
Before the study of the life cycle of butterflies by German-born naturalist and scientific artist Maria Merian, most people believed that they were "born of mud," spontaneously produced from the earth. Her interest in insects was rare; they were considered "vile and nasty" and unworthy of study. She was also one of the first naturalists to watch insects up close, offering her unique insights into how they lived.
Despite becoming one of the leading entomologists of her time, her astounding discoveries concerning insect metamorphosis were overlooked by many scientists because she published in German rather than Latin, the official language of science at the time. She also made headlines by funding her unofficial voyage to Suriname, where she documented several new insects and plants, a sporadic effort for a lady of the time. Despite this, her influence on science is undeniable: many of her categories are still valid today, and her stunning paintings of plants, animals, and insects have been wildly acclaimed for ages.
Marie Curie (1867 - 1934)
As the first woman in history to receive a Nobel Prize — and the only person to receive two Nobel Prizes in two distinct areas (chemistry and physics) — Polish-French physicist and chemist Maria Skodowska Curie is one of the first names that comes to mind when considering women in science. When Marie and her husband, Pierre Curie, discovered radioactivity, it irrevocably altered people's perceptions of the world: it suddenly looked that energy might arise as if by magic. She also discovered two elements, polonium and radium, and the element curium, named after her.
Under her guidance, the world's first tumor-treatment experiments were conducted, and she established the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which are still prominent medical research institutions today. Marie Curie has left an enduring legacy in addition to her remarkable individual contributions: she has inspired generations of women to follow their scientific study and discovery ambitions.
Henrietta Leavitt (1868 - 1921)
A computer is a machine nowadays, but in Henrietta Leavitt's day, the phrase referred to a group of female astronomers recruited by Harvard to analyse data from their observatory. Leavitt was employed by Edward Charles Pickering, who assigned her to study variable stars, which sparkled and faded at predictable intervals.
Leavitt recognized and classified almost 2,400 of these stars using her provided data and discovered a relationship between the period and luminosity of a specific type of variable star, the Cepheids. This finding altered astronomers' perceptions of the universe, allowing scientists to estimate the distance to distant galaxies. It paved the way for a new understanding of the universe's structure and scale.
Lise Meitner (1878 - 1968)
Lise Meitner, an Austrian physicist, made a significant contribution to nuclear physics; however, she did not receive the Nobel Prize for her research. Meitner, Germany's first female physics professor, frequently collaborated with chemist Otto Hahn. Even when Hitler took power and forced Meitner to flee to the Netherlands, she continued to collaborate with Hahn through correspondence.
When Hahn's experiments revealed that the nucleus of uranium might break apart, Meitner's physics explained precisely what was happening — nuclear fission — but the Nobel Committee awarded Hahn the prize alone. Following the release of the committee's sealed records, which revealed how badly undervalued Meitner's efforts were, she earned various posthumous awards, including the name of element 109 meitnerium.
Alice Ball (1892 - 1964)
Alice Ball, an African-American chemist, revolutionised leprosy therapy in her brief life. Ball was the first African American and the first woman to get a Master's degree from the University of Hawaii. Dr Harry Hollmann invited her to help him analyse chaulmoogra oil, which had shown promising results as a treatment for leprosy — the source of a significant public health issue in Hawaii — but was difficult to utilize efficiently. Ball devised a method for isolating the active elements of the oil and injecting them. Unfortunately, Ball died of an illness before publishing her findings, and another chemist eventually published without crediting Ball.
Fortunately, Hollmann made sure that her name was remembered by publicly announcing, "After a great deal of experimental labour, Miss Ball solved the problem for me... [this preparation is known as]... the Ball Method." Ball's treatment remained the best option for leprosy sufferers until the mid-1940s, and Hawaii honours her work every four years on February 29 by marking Alice Ball Day.
Rachel Carson (1907 - 1964)
When Rachel Carson, an American marine biologist, wrote Silent Spring, she did more than merely draw attention to the hazards of indiscriminate use of synthetic pesticides; she also helped to begin the contemporary environmental movement. Carson began her career in the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, but once her articles and books about ocean life were immensely famous, she began writing about science full-time.
"Silent Spring" is widely regarded as one of the most significant nonfiction works of the twentieth century. When Silent Spring was published in 1962, Carson faced harsh criticism from the chemical industry, despite a concurrent struggle with breast cancer that outperformed her therapies. Even after Carson's death, her book sparked public interest in environmental and public health issues, and the Nixon Administration established the Environmental Protection Agency within a few years.
Raye Montague (1935 - 2018)
Raye joined the Navy as a typewriter during the day and studied computer programming at night. She was the first to use a computer program to create a navy ship design in the 1970s. Raye went on to become the US Navy's first female program director of ships.
Katherine Johnson (1918 - 2020)
Katherine Johnson was a Black mathematician and one of the first African American female NASA scientists. She computed and analysed NASA spacecraft flight routes as a mathematician. She is most known for performing the calculations that enabled the first Americans to enter Earth's orbit and land on the moon. The 2016 film "Hidden Figures" tells the story of Johnson's life and work at NASA.
When we talk about female scientists, the first name that comes to mind is Marie Curie; however, not just her; there have been many legendary scientists. We have summarized the contributions of eight women scientists who have left their wisdom to be a part of scientific history. Learning about their journey enables students and motivates them to think beyond the ordinary for the betterment of science and, ultimately, humankind.