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More Unsung Women of Science

Some women you haven't heard of who made significant contributions to science.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science

Skeptoid Podcast #484
September 15, 2015
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There haven't been very many times when Skeptoid episodes got a sequel the following week; I prefer to avoid multipart episodes, as the show format is to present simple, convenient, bite-sized pieces of standalone scientific investigation. But the volume of backchannel feedback I received from last week's list of unsung women in science made it clear that the job was left woefully underdone. So we continue this week, with the most popularly requested women whom knowledgeable researchers felt should have been included on any shortlist.

I would also like to address the flip side of the backchannel feedback that I received, which is that this subject matter is inappropriate for Skeptoid. Indeed, pointing out women whose scientific achievements were overlooked or miscredited to men, because of their gender, is arguably more of a social or moral quest than it is an evaluation of the veracity of some pseudoscientific belief. No argument there. But history vs. pseudohistory is also an important theme for Skeptoid; and the fact is that many chronicles of the history of science give the impression that even fewer women have impacted the sciences than opportunity allowed. I've met a frightening proportion of people whose history education was so incomplete that they don't know in what centuries World War I and World War II took place; far too many have the equally pseudohistoric view that Marie Curie was the only woman scientist. I hereby present evidence to the contrary.

And I further claim the right (as an armchair aerodynamicist) to begin with a pioneer in fluid dynamics:

Agnes Pockels

Born in 1862, this German woman was hampered by the fact that women were not accepted into universities and by her family's need for her to be a full-time nurse for her ailing parents. Nevertheless, she passionately self-educated with books, and, working in her home, became probably the world's leading expert on surface tension. She was published in top journals for over forty years and was eventually awarded an honorary doctorate from Carolina-Wilhelmina University. Pockels is generally credited with three important advances: a method for determining the size and shape of organic molecules called surface balancing and now known as a Langmuir trough; the standard procedure for ensuring experimental samples are deposited upon a clean water surface, involving the use of an evaporating solvent; and her observations of the minimum area occupied by a monomolecular surface film, now called Pockel's point. All of this was with a high school education and having never worked professionally, and able to work with her peers only through publications.

Marietta Blau

Born in 1894, this Austrian physicist was the first to refine the process of tracking the paths of high-energy particles in photographic emulsion to the point where the tracks of individual alpha particles and protons could be distinguished. Hers was one of the most important advances in the field of high energy physics experimentation. But as a Jew, she was forced to flee Austria in 1938, completely disrupting her work. Albert Einstein was able to hook her up to some extent, but it was six years before she was able to get to the United States and resume her work. By then, a British physicist, C.F. Powell, had picked up her work where she'd left off. Both were nominated for the 1950 Nobel Prize in Physics. It went to Powell, creating one of the most infamous Nobel Prize controversies. It should be noted that all the years of her most important work was as an unpaid scientist, as was the rule for women at the Austrian institute where she worked. She was supported by her family. In 1962, the Austrian Academy of Sciences awarded her its Erwin Schrödinger Prize.

Inge Lehmann

Born in 1888, this Danish geophysicist first challenged the standard model of the Earth's interior as a single homogenous liquid core. Her study of seismic waves led her to the discovery of the Earth's solid inner core, which reflected seismic waves differently. Also named for her is the Lehmann discontinuity, a subcontinental layer some 220 km below the Earth's surface at which seismic waves accelerate and change direction. Lehmann won all sorts of accolades and awards and honorary degrees throughout her distinguished career, but how many of us have heard her name, even though we all studied the Earth's core in grade school? Today, the American Geophysical Union gives out the Inge Lehmann Medal to recognize outstanding contributions to our understanding of the Earth's core.

Berta Karlik

Born in 1904, this Austrian physicist was a friend and correspondent of Marie Curie and several of her female researchers. By the time she worked with a team that did important work characterizing the radioactive elements present in seawater, her resume was already looking pretty impressive as a leader in radioactivity. At the time, researchers everywhere were racing to find Astatine, element number 85 in the periodic table, which nobody seemed to be able to find in nature. Some guys were finally able to synthesize it, but it wasn't until her discovery during World War II of three naturally occurring isotopes, proving that it is produced naturally as a byproduct of the radioactive decay of heavier elements. She won several awards for this, was made Director of the Institute for Radium Research in Vienna where she worked, and became the first female full professor at the University of Vienna in 1956.

Virginia Apgar

Born in 1909, she's the doctor whose name you didn't know you knew. There weren't many woman doctors in the 1930s but she was one of them, and also a surgeon, and also created the Department of Anesthesiology at Columbia University. But it was when she did a statistical study of newborn mortality that her name became a household word. When a baby is born and assessed, it's given an Apgar score, which is an acronym for the five things it measures: Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity, and Respiration. But the acronym is just fortuosity. Its real root is the name of Dr. Apgar herself. In 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a 20¢ Great Americans series postage stamp featuring Dr. Apgar.

Marie Tharp

Born in 1920, this geologist spent years drawing maps of the ocean floor from data collected by her research partner Bruce Heezen, because women were not allowed aboard the research ships. But this forced sequestration had a perk: she became the first person to show that the mid-oceanic ridge extended all the way around the world; and by comparing these maps to earthquake maps, proved that the continental plates are indeed moving around. Until then, plate tectonics had been considered an old-fashioned and discredited notion, proposed by German geophysicist Alfred Wegener. Although nearly all of Tharp's work was done in close partnership with Heezen, he stubbornly refused to accept the continental drift explanation for the ridge for some time, thus leaving the credit to Tharp. Today, Google Earth users can view our oceans with the Marie Tharp Historical Map layer.

Maria Sibylla Merian

Born in 1647 in Prussia, Merian showed us what was reasonably possible in a century where any sort of a formal education was virtually unobtainable for a woman, to say nothing of paid scientific employment. She was nuts for bugs. How does one make a career out of that? She documented bugs. She drew them, she logged their behavior; and published them in books, her first when she was only 28. Her focus was on metamorphoses, such as caterpillars to butterflies, during a time when this process was poorly understood and often misrepresented. When she was living in Amsterdam she was given a private commission to the Dutch colony of Suriname and spent a few years there collecting insects, though not as long as she would have liked because she quickly contracted an illness (possibly malaria) and had to return to Europe. But it was enough to prompt her major book The Metamorphosis of the Insects of Suriname, and to this day she is considered one of the greatest early entomologists. She was featured on Germany's 500 Deutsche Mark note.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Born in 1718, this Italian mathematician displays one stark departure from her comrades on this list: she never wanted to work in the sciences. Her father made her. And when he died when she was 34 years old, she quit outright and devoted the rest of her life to the church and the service of the poor. But that short career had quite the impact. She's best known as the first female author of a mathematical text. It was a 1,020 page textbook for Italian schoolchildren called Instituzioni Analitiche ad Uso della Gioventù Italiana. To say it was well received would be an understatement. Pope Benedict XIV appointed her to the University of Bologna (which she declined), and Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (a great booster of the sciences and a skeptic, and familiar to Skeptoid listeners from our episode on the chess-playing Mechanical Turk, and to whom Agnesi dedicated her book) awarded her diamonds and other precious jewels. A famous curve used in calculus called the Witch of Agnesi is named for her (though it had nothing to do with anyone thinking she was a witch; it was a mistranslation of the verb to turn). She also has a crater on Venus named after her.

Alice Hamilton

Born in 1869, she lived until 1970: 101 years of great science. She was an American bacteriologist and toxicologist steered by fate into industrial health, protecting workers from toxic substances of all kinds. She was the head of Illinois' Occupational Diseases Commission, the original forerunner of today's Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When Harvard University started a program in Industrial Medicine in 1919, Hamilton was the nation's leading expert (in fact she was practically the only expert), so she became Harvard Medical School's first female faculty member ever. But just so she wouldn't get the idea that she was being given special treatment, she was forbidden to attend commencement ceremonies, could not go into the Harvard Club, and was not allowed to have faculty tickets to football games. In 1995 the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp featuring Dr. Hamilton, and you've probably never heard her name.

For most of these great scientists, I've tried to mention their most significant recognitions, such as being featured on a stamp or currency or having a prize name after them. But I also titled this episode "Unsung Women of Science". Well, you're not unsung if you've been featured on a postage stamp, are you? I do that to make a point. Most listeners have not heard of any of these women, and it's the rare listener indeed who's heard of more than one or two of them. Yet we could rattle off the names of dozens of male scientists from years past and you'd at least recognize most, if not all, of the names. Friends, our telling of history and science remains unbalanced. We do our future a grave disservice through this mischaracterization. It is not enough to issue a stamp a quarter century after someone's death, when their name is no longer one that will be recognized. We must not let any of our greats go unsung to begin with.

By Brian Dunning

Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.


Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "More Unsung Women of Science." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 15 Sep 2015. Web. 10 Dec 2016. <>


References & Further Reading

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.

Rayner-Canham, M., Rayner-Canham, G. A Devotion to Their Science: Pioneer Women of Radioactivity. Philadelphia: Chemical Heritage Foundation, 1997.

Staff. "83 Eminent Physicists." Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics. University of California, Los Angeles, 18 Jan. 2003. Web. 11 Sep. 2015. <>

Sway, R. Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science - and the World. New York: Broadway Books, 2015.


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