Unsung Women of Science
These important scientists are virtually unknown. Let's see if we can fix that.
by Brian Dunning
September 8, 2015
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Ask someone to name a woman scientist, and it's a virtual certainty that you'll get Marie Curie. Who's second place on that list? To answer that, I am reminded of the initial running of the America's Cup yacht race in 1851, when the America was so far ahead that Queen Victoria had to ask "Who is second?" Her attendant gave the famous answer: "Your Majesty, there is no second." Marie Curie truly is the only woman scientist whose name is widely known.
Perhaps in a pinch, a few people might come up with Jane Goodall, the primatologist made famous by television. And if really, really pressed, some might remember the computer pioneer Ada Lovelace or may have heard that the actress Hedy Lamarr had patented something or other. You could probably ask 100 laypeople on the street to name a woman scientist and not get any other name. This shouldn't surprise anyone, considering the lack of credit woman scientists have received. Before 1950, only three women were given Nobel Prizes in the sciences. By the year 2000, had that number gone up much? What do you think? It had only increased to ten. That is a gobsmackingly small number. Certainly no rational person agrees that only ten women had an equal impact on science as over 400 Nobel Prize-winning men.
In answer to this challenge, the Internet has been graced with various lists of "overlooked woman scientists". Unfortunately, most of these lists online all include only the same ten women (or often just a subset of them), as if someone once made a list and nobody ever did any further research. It's an impressive ten; although not one of them won a Nobel Prize, fully seven of the ten worked with male colleagues who did later win one for the work she either led or shared in. These ten women are:
Vera Rubin, b. 1928: Discovered evidence for dark matter in the universe.
Cecilia Payne, b. 1900: Made early determinations of the chemical makeup of stars.
Ida Tacke Noddack, b. 1896: First to speculate on nuclear fission.
These two women died before a Nobel Prize was awarded to their colleagues, and were thus ineligible to share in it:
Henrietta Leavitt, b. 1868: Made it possible to measure the distance of faraway galaxies.
Rosalind Franklin, b. 1920: Discovered the helical structure of DNA.
These five women were still alive when their male colleagues were awarded Nobel Prizes, and are all generally thought to have deserved it:
Nettie Stevens, b. 1862: Discovered the X and Y chromosomes.
Chien Shiung Wu, b. 1912: Manhattan Project scientist who disproved an early accepted particle theory.
Esther Lederberg, b. 1922: Made a number of important discoveries in bacterial genetics.
Lise Meitner, b. 1878: Nuclear physicist who did important work on transuranium elements.
Jocelyn Bell Burnell, b. 1943: Discovered pulsars.
As a result of these ten women's frequent mentions online, they all now have very nice Wikipedia pages, and to some extent, have arguably been rescued from the backroads of obscurity. This only leaves uncounted scores, hundreds, perhaps thousands of women who made significant contributions and are still virtually unknown. There are two important questions that this raises. First is why don't more women go into the sciences? And equally important is why are the ones who do treated as second class citizens?
A lot of the same causes affect women in other fields where they are equally underrepresented. In addition to the familiar factors of lack of encouragement, teasing, and stereotyped feelings like "women just don't do that", we have the deeply entrenched Good Old Boys network that permeates so many fields and leads to biases, inequality of pay, and passing over for promotions. Women tend to be more impacted by the need to provide child care and have a tougher time balancing this with graduate school. And in an interesting twist that is unique to the sciences, women tend to change their names when they get married. The need to publish and establish a reputation by name is key to a science career, and a changed name often results in a forgotten person.
So let's give a spot of recognition to a few names that are hopefully unfamiliar to you, starting with a group of six:
The ENIAC Six
The ENIAC was the first truly programmable computer, and while the men who designed its hardware are well known, the six women who essentially invented computer programming were largely ignored at the time. Kay McNulty, Betty Jennings, Betty Snyder, Marlyn Wescoff, Fran Bilas and Ruth Lichterman would spend days or even weeks figuring out how to solve a specific problem, such as calculating the trajectory of an artillery shell, by setting switches and connecting patch cables.
Born in 1924, this rocket scientist is best known for developing the electrothermal hydrazine thruster that's still used today. Brill was probably the only American woman working as a rocket scientist in the 1940s, and she was still in her twenties at the time. She had degrees in mathematics and chemistry.
Annie Jump Cannon
Born in 1863, she deserves credit just for how awesome her name is, but what's truly staggering is the scope of her contribution to astronomy. She classified some 400,000 stars. Cannon catalogued them by brightness and by their chemical spectrum, which was her particular specialty. She developed improved methods for spectral analysis that are still used today.
Born in 1882, this mathematician was one of Albert Einstein's closest and most prolific advisors. Under pressure from the community to award her a professorship, Göttingen University finally relented by creating its first unpaid faculty position. And, as the Nazis rose to power, Noether was the very first Jewish professor fired. Her best known legacy, called Noether's theorem, is a cornerstone of modern theoretical physics.
Born in 1902, McClintock was never able to land a professorship. However she was one of those very few women to win a Nobel in the sciences: it was for her discovery, in the 1950s, that genes could switch on and off and could change locations within the chromosome. This was a breakthrough that revolutionized the infant science of genetics and completely disrupted what other geneticists thought was carved in stone.
Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
Born in 1910, she was an X-ray crystallographer, one who studies photographs of the diffraction produced by X-rays passing through a crystalline structure. Using this technique, she worked out two molecular structures that most people of the day thought was beyond the capability of the technology: the structures of penicillin and Vitamin B12. Like Barbara McClintock, Hodgkin was eventually given a Nobel Prize.
Born in 1854, this close personal friend of Marie Curie made important improvements to arc lights. She was the first woman allowed to read her own paper at the Royal Society, but only after 5 years of having them read for her by men, and was never allowed to join. Over 100,000 devices called Ayrton Fans, shaped according to her work in fluid dynamics, were used in World War I to dispel poison gas.
Born in 1850, she was able to continue her education in mathematics outside of Russia only through a sham marriage to an activist who was part of a group fighting for such opportunities for women. She excelled radically, editing a mathematical journal in Sweden and lecturing at Stockholm University. Her crowning achievement was winning a prize by the French Academy of Sciences in 1888 for a complex problem involving movement around a fixed point; it resulted in the Kovalevskaya Top. There are three such tops: the Lagrange Top, the Euler Top, and the Kovalevskaya Top.
Born in 1906, she and her research partner Robert McCance essentially invented the science of nutrition. Her volume The Chemical Composition of Foods, published in 1940, contained fifteen thousand values, all established through exhaustive testing. They created a special low-cost, high-nutrition diet for Britons during World War II, and when the war ended, Widdowson traversed Germany to ensure proper nutrition for the tens of thousands of war orphans.
Born in 1799, she and her brother discovered the first Ichthyosaur skeleton when she was only twelve. It was soon followed by a Plesiosaur and then a Pterodactyl. She refined the processes of sketching and recording her finds to new levels. Hers were among the earliest and most complete such finds known to science, and they continued throughout her career, well funded by investors who sold her discoveries while male paleontologists were credited for the resulting academic work.
Birn in 1898, this experimental embryologist created pipettes fine enough to transfer specific groups of cells from one amphibian embryo into another for her PhD thesis. Using them, she was able to create two-headed tadpoles. Her faculty advisor, who was not involved with the work, attached his own name to her paper (which he didn't do with anyone else's) and, eleven years after her tragic accidental death at age 25, was awarded the Nobel Prize for her work.
Born in 1820, I considered not including her here because we all know her name already. But we know her as a nurse, the one who laid the foundations for modern nursing standards. But what many of us don't know is that her biggest contribution to science was as a statistician. During the Crimean war she noted that more than twenty times as many soldiers died from disease than from wounds. She successfully lobbied for the creation of the Army Medical Department's Statistical Branch, and was arguably the most influential inventor of the use of data in science-based medicine. Florence Nightingale is not just the mother of changing the sheets in your hospital bed; she's also the mother of the clinical trial that created your treatment.
Grace Murray Hopper
Born in 1906, this computer scientist is best known for discovering a moth jammed in a computer relay, thus coining the term "bug" for a computer problem. The first woman to get a PhD in mathematics from Yale also invented the compiler, one of the most basic and important processes in software. The first truly ubiquitous programming language, COBOL, was based on her work. I like her best for often threatening to "come back and haunt" engineers who ever used the phrase "We've always done it this way."
So there you have a Skeptoid-episode-length list of some names that deserve to be better known. Obviously it's pitifully incomplete. I could do 20 such episodes and only begin to make a dent in the list of important people. I tried to stick with women who I felt really advanced the sciences in times and places where other people weren't. One thing I learned quickly while researching this is that a book could easily be written about each of these important scientists, and it wasn't going to be very rewarding to cut each down to two or three sentences apiece. Therefore I offer you a personal challenge: select a scientist I've just told you about, someone whom you hadn't heard of before, and who intrigued you. Take twenty minutes and research each for yourself. There are some excellent resources listed on the web page for this episode if you can't find them elsewhere. It will be the reward of your week, and it's well worthwhile.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Unsung Women of Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
8 Sep 2015. Web.
20 Oct 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4483>
References & Further Reading
Bartik, Jean Jennings. Pioneer Programmer: Jean Jennings Bartik and the Computer that Changed the World. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2013.
Des Jardins, J. The Madame Curie Complex: The Hidden History of Women in Science. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2010.
Gornick, V. Women in Science: Then and Now. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
Ideal, A., Meharchand, R. Blazing the Trail: Essays by Leading Women in Science. New York: CreateSpace, 2013.
McGrayne, S. Nobel Prize Women in Science: Their Lives, Struggles, and Momentous Discoveries. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry Press, 1998.
Sway, R. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World. New York: Broadway Books, 2015.
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