Women Scientists Who Made a Difference

By Guest Blogger Susan Wells

When you think of scientists, you think of the greats, like Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Issac Newton, Charles Darwin, Benjamin Franklin, Galileo Galilei and Nikola Tesla. But what about the women scientists? Our world would be lacking without their contributions to science and research.

A little while ago on our Twitter feed, @spanglerscience, we asked if anyone could name 10 women scientists. Only one follower took the challenge and completed it. I thought it would make a good blog post to list some of the top female scientists and what they have contributed to the field of science and technology. In researching this I learned a lot and I hope you will too. I’m an overachiever, so I’ve listed 20 in no particular order.

  1. Marie Curie – born in Warsaw, Poland on November 7, 1867, she was a pioneer in radioactivity. Curie created a theory of radioactivity and discovered two elements, polonium and radium. She developed techniques for isolating radioactive isotopes. She was also the first person to be honored with two Nobel Prizes, one in physics and one in chemistry.
  2. Rosalind Franklin – born in 1920, she graduated from Cambridge University. Studied X-rays of molecules and played a crucial role in the 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA. Franklin’s specialty was analyzing crystals formed by certain molecules. A detailed X-ray photograph she made clearly defined the double-helix structure of DNA. She also did a lot of research on viruses until her death at age 37.
  3. Gertrude Belle Elion – born in 1918. She and colleague George Hitchings developed drug treatments for leukemia, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, viral herpes, urinary and respiratory tract infections and AIDS. They won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988.
  4. Annie Jump Cannon – born in 1863, she was an American astronomer and curator of astronomical photographs. She classified more than 500,000 stars, discovered more than 300 variable stars, 5 novas and 1 spectroscopic binary. She also discovered SS Cygni a dwarf nova that repeats its outbursts every 60 days.
  5. Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin – born in 1910, she was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer. She received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for determining the structure of biochemical compounds used to control pernicious anemia. She, along with J.D. Bernal, made the first X-ray photograph of the protein pepsin.
  6. Barbara McClintock – born in 1902, she was an American geneticist. She discovered that genetic material called “transposable elements” or “jumping genes” shifted location in the chromosomes from generation to generation. Not recognized at first, it was later heralded as a major contribution to DNA research. She won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
  7. Sally Ride – born May 26, 1951, she is an American astrophysicist and astronaut. In 1983, she became the first American woman in space. She helped design the robot arm for the space shuttle and served on the commissions that investigated the Challenger and Columbia disasters. (She is a personal hero of mine.)
  8. Jane Goodall – born in 1934 is an English ethologist and primatologist. She established a research camp in the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania to study chimpanzee behavior. She kept detailed records of their movements, interactions and social organization. She found that chimpanzees are capable of complex behavior patterns and emotional relationships. They also have the dexterity and intelligence to make and use tools.
  9. Maria Agnesi – born May 16, 1718. She wrote the first math book by a woman that still survives. She was also the first woman appointed a a mathematics professor at a university.
  10. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson – born June 9, 1836. She was the first woman doctor in Great Britain. She also worked for woman’s opportunities in higher education. In 1866 she opened a small hospital for women and children, the first in London to be staffed by women physicians. Anderson was the first woman mayor in England.
  11. Virginia Apgar – born June 7, 1909, she developed the Apgar Newborn Scoring System and therefore helped in increasing infant survival rates. She was a pioneer in anesthesiology and warned that some anesthetics used during childbirth could harm infants. Apgar also helped refocus the March of Dimes organization from just polio to all birth defects.
  12. Clara Barton – born December 25, 1821. She was a famous nurse during the Civil War and was the founder of the American Red Cross.
  13. Lillian Evelyn Gilbreth – born May 24, 1878. She was a trained psychologist who worked with her husband to study movements needed to complete certain tasks. They became pioneers in ergonomics and consultants to corporations around the world. She and her husband Frank raised 12 children and were the subject of the book and the movie, Cheaper by the Dozen.
  14. Laura Maria Caterina Bassi – born October 31, 1711. She was a professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna and taught experiments in Newtonian physics.
  15. Joy Adamson – born January 20, 1910. She was a naturalist who worked hard for conservation in Kenya. She wrote a book, Born Free, about raising a lion cub and releasing her back to the wild.
  16. Shirley Ann Jackson – born August 5, 1946 is an American physicist. In 1973, she became the first African American woman to earn a doctorate from MIT.
  17. Grace Hopper – born December 9, 1906. She was one of the earliest computer programmers and a leader in software development. In 1943, she joined the Navy where she worked at Harvard’s Cruft Laboratories. She was also a mathematician.
  18. Anna Freud – born in 1895, daughter of Sigmund Freud. She was a pioneer in the psychoanalysis of children. She founded a clinic for child therapy.
  19. Mary Douglas Leakey – born February 6, 1913. She made several of the most important archeological discoveries involving early humans. In 1948, she found the first perfectly preserved skull of a hominoid. She also found a hominid fossil in Tanzania named “Zinjanthropus.” It was believed to be 1.7 million years old. Some people believed the discovery may be the missing link between humans and apes. Her most important discovery happened in 1978 when she and her team found footprints of two hominids in Tanzania. The footprints were believed to be 3.5 million years old and proved humans began walking upright much earlier than scientists had thought.
  20. Dian Fossey – born in 1932. She traveled to Africa in 1963 where she met paleontologists Mary and Louis Leakey, who inspired her to study mountain gorillas. She studied and lived with mountain gorillas in the Republic of Congo. Her memoir, Gorillas in the Mist, was made into a film. Fossey was murdered in Rwanda in 1985. Poachers, outraged by her campaign against them, were suspected but never caught.

Who have I missed? Who are your favorite women scientists?

*This post was written with help from About.com, Wikipedia, Fact Monster

13 replies
  1. Carrie
    Carrie says:

    I love science and love it when girls can be inspired. Thanks for all the great info on women scientists. You can bet I’m printing this out and working into conversations with my daughters very soon!

  2. Kirstin
    Kirstin says:

    Thanks for this round-up. As a girl (in the early to mid 80s) I loved reading biographies, but there were so few about women and even fewer about women in science – I can only remember reading about Marie Curie and Clara Barton. Even today, after all the research I did while pregnant, I just learned from this post that the Apgar scale was developed by a woman. I’ll be saving this to share with my son when he’s older.

  3. Robin
    Robin says:

    I know you have Hopper on there, but what about other women that have made a dent in the IT world. If you think about our past century it truly is the most important science field we have been apart of. There has to be more.

  4. jharna pradhan
    jharna pradhan says:

    I am very glad that you took the initiative to write about the women scientists.your initiative was very helpful to me.I had my projects to be done so i really was confused what topic should i choose.I thought of writing about the great scientists who made the difference.thanks to your write up that i got the idea to write about the Women scientists.


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