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Famous Women in Science


Hypatia (d. 415 AD)

A mathematician, astronomer, and Platonic philosopher. According to the Byzantine encyclopedia The Suda, her father Theon was the last head of the Museum at Alexandria. Hypatia's prominence was accentuated by the fact that she was both female and pagan in an increasingly Christian environment. Shortly before her death, Cyril was made the Christian bishop of Alexandria, and a conflict arose between Cyril and the prefect Orestes. Orestes was disliked by some Christians and was a friend of Hypatia, and rumors started that Hypatia was to blame for the conflict. In the spring of 415 AD, the situation reached a tragic conclusion when a band of Christian monks seized Hypatia on the street, beat her, and dragged her body to a church where they mutilated her flesh with sharp tiles and burned her remains.

Marie Curie

Marie Sklodowska Curie

Began the science of radioactivity. She is best known as the discoverer of the radioactive elements polonium and radium and as the first person to win two Nobel prizes. For scientists and the public, her radium was a key to a basic change in our understanding of matter and energy. Her work not only influenced the development of fundamental science but also ushered in a new era in medical research and treatment.

Maud Menten

Maud Leonora Menten

One of the most versatile, innovative investigators in chemistry in the early part of the century. She graduated from the University of Toronto, receiving a B.A. in 1904 and a M.B. in medicine in 1907. Menten was appointed fellow at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research for the 1907-1908 year were she studied the effect if radium on tumors. She then returned to the University of Toronto where, in 1911, she became one of the first Canadian women to receive a medical doctorate. She subsequently worked as a demonstrator of physiology in Archibald Byron MacCallum's (1858-1934) laboratory at the University of Toronto. Then, in 1912 she joined Leonor Michaelis at the University of Berlin. It was the work there that was to give her eternal recognition - the Michaelis-Menten equation. This concept forever changed the study of biological reactions and helped to shape the field of biochemistry. The Michaelis-Menten equation gave scientists a way in which they could mathematically analyze their observations and descriptions of biological reactions. Not content to rest on her remarkable discovery, Menten co-devised what is now the standard method of isolating and describing protein behavior. She was finally promoted to full professor in 1949 when she was 70 years old, at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania. This was one year before her retirement from her position at Pittsburgh.

Dorothy Hodgkin

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-)

Received her Nobel in 1964 for using X-ray crystallography to determine the structure of organic compounds including penicillin.

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson (1907-1964)

Recognized that the pesticides used in WWII were harmful to humans. She established the Environmental Protection Agency - one of America's most respected environmental research groups.

Rachel Carson

Lise Meitner (1878-1968)

Calculated the potential energy released by splitting a Uranium atom. She then refused to take part in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb.

Harriet Brooks

Harriet Brooks

Graduated from McGill University, Montreal, in 1898, with a BA in Mathematics and Natural Philosophy. In 1899, she began research with Ernest Rutherford, the famous English physicist. He encouraged her and, in 1901, she became the first woman to study at the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, England, where she earned her MA. For a brief period she also worked at Marie Curie's lab in France. A year later, Brooks returned to McGill to continue her research with Rutherford. She was the first person to realize that one element can change into another. She was also among the early discoverers of radon and the first researcher to attempt to determine its atomic mass.

Irene Joliot-Curie

Irene Joliot-Curie

Irene, Marie, and Eve CurieBorn on September 12, 1897, in Paris, the daughter of the French physicists Marie and Pierre Curie. She was educated at the University of Paris, and beginning in 1918 she assisted her mother at the Institute of Radium of the University of Paris. Frederic Joliot, born in Paris on March 19, 1900, was educated at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris and at the University of Paris. While assisting also at the Institute of Radium, he met Irene Curie, and they married in 1926. They subsequently worked together as a scientific team, and both assumed the name of Joliot-Curie. The Joliot-Curies specialized in the field of nuclear physics. In 1933 they made the important discovery that radioactive elements can be artificially prepared from stable elements. In their experiments they bombarded boron with alpha particles, producing a radioactive form of nitrogen. For their contribution to nuclear research the Joliot-Curies were awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry. Her death, on March 17, 1956, was caused by leukemia, which she contracted in the course of her work.

Elizabeth Blackwell

Elizabeth Blackwell

In 1849, she was the first woman to complete a medical doctor degree (MD).

Jocelyn Bell

Jocelyn Bell (1943-)

Discovered the first four pulsars. Using a radio telescope that she helped build as part of her Ph.D. dissertation, Bell (later Burnell) detected a rapid set of pulses occurring at regular intervals. She determined that the position of the unusual radio source remained fixed with respect to the stars, which meant that it was located beyond the solar system. During the course of the next few months, she discovered 3 more pulsating radio sources (or pulsars). These pulsars were later found to be rapidly rotating neutron stars. Unfortunately, the Nobel prize for discovery of the pulsars went to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish.

Alice Evans

Alice Evans (1881-1953)

Alice Catherine Evans, the first woman scientist to have a permanent appointment in the U.S. Dairy Division of the Bureau of Animal Industry, was born on January 29, 1881 in Neath, Pennsylvania, U.S.A. She attended Susquehanna Collegiate Institute in Towanda, Pennsylvania from 1898 to 1901. In 1909 she received a B.S. degree in bacteriology from Cornell University in Ithaca, New York and an M.S. degree in the same field from the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1910. She did more graduate work at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois. In 1910 Evans started working in the Dairy Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the field of bacteriology of milk and cheese. In 1913 her appointment was made permanent. She demonstrated in 1917 that raw milk could transmit a bacterium, Bacillus abortus, which caused disease in cattle and in humans. Evans contracted this disease, brucellosis (undulant fever), herself and suffered from it for seven years. She advocated pasteurization of milk to effectively kill this disease-causing bacterium. Her findings and recommendations were not taken seriously by other scientists, partly because she was a woman and she had no Ph.D. degree. She encountered great deal of difficulty convincing physicians, public health officials, veterinarians and farmers that pasteurization was needed to halt the spread of this disease. Eventually she succeeded and in the 1930's pasteurization of milk became mandatory in the U.S. dairy industry.

Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)

Rosalind Franklin received her degree in Chemistry in 1951 from Cambridge University. It was while working as a research associate for James Randall at King's College that she was the first to recognize the helix shape of DNA. Her work was passed on to James Watson and Francis Crick, who along with Maurice Wilkins, a coworker of Rosalind's, shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for the discovery of the double helix. Her work, along with that of others, was built into Watson and Crick's detailed description of DNA. She has never received official credit for her contribution to the discovery. She also contributed much to studies of coal and plant viruses.

Maria Goeppert-Mayer

Maria Goeppert-Mayer (1906-1972)

discovered the fact that discrete energy levels exist for neutrons in 1945, working unpaid in her husband's lab as a 'volunteer associate'. But soon she became attracted to physics and the developing field of quantum mechanics. In 1930 she took her doctorate in theoretical physics under the direction of Nobel Prize Winners Max Born, James Franck, and Adolf Windaus. Together with her husband, Joseph Edward Mayer, they moved to Baltimore and worked at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland. In 1939 they went to Columbia University. She co-authored a text entitled Statistical Mechanics (1940) with her husband. After the war, 1945, she took a professorship of physics at the Institute for Nuclear Studies, University of Chicago, under the influence of Enrico Fermi. In 1948, she began work on nuclear shell structure and the meaning of the "magic numbers" - those nuclei that have a special number of protons. She postulated these numbers to be the shell numbers of a shell model, a "nuclear counterpart to the closed shells of electrons" at the atomic level. In 1950 she met and began a collaboration with Johannes Hans Daniel Jensen which led to the publication of the book entitled Elementary Theory of Nuclear Shell Structure (1955). She achieved the rank of full professor in 1959. In 1963, Maria Goeppert-Mayer was awarded the Nobel Prize jointly with Hans Jensen for their work on the shell model of nuclear structure, i.e. their discoveries concerning the organization of neutrons and protons within atomic nuclei. She won the Nobel Prize in Physics for her ground breaking work in models of the nucleus of atoms.

Edith Hinley-Quimby

Edith Hinley-Quimby (1891-1982)

measured the generation and penetration of various forms of radiation which allowed the exact dosage to be calculated for treating illnesses. She developed and taught techniques for disposal of radioactive wastes occurring in hospitals, and procedures for cleaning up accidental radioactive spills. She determined application of radioactive isotopes in the treatment of thyroid disease, and for circulation studies and diagnoses of brain tumors, and conducted research in the use of artificially produced radioactive sodium in medical research, including the protection of those handling radioactive substances from the harmful effects.

Mary Leaky

Mary Douglas Nicol Leaky (1913-1996)

British paleoanthropologist. The daughter of a landscape painter, Leakey was born in England but traveled abroad during much of her childhood. She became committed to anthropology at the age of 11 on viewing the famed Cro-Magnon cave in southern France. She later took courses in anthropology and geology at University College, London, and became an expert in stone tools. She participated in excavations in England and in 1931 led a study of the Clactonian culture in Essex. She then joined the Anglo-Kenyan paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey's expeditions in Africa and married him in 1936. At the Olduvai Gorge in 1959, Mary Leakey found the 1,750,000-year-old skull of Zinjanthropus (later reclassified Australopithecus boisei), which first showed the great antiquity of hominids in Africa. At Laetoli, Tanzania, she discovered the 3,750,000-year-old jaws and teeth of a Homo species (1975) and the 3,600,000-year-old fossilized footprints of a bipedal hominid (1979).

Margaret Mead

Margaret Mead (1901-1978)

Helped "create" the science of anthropology. Ellen Swallow combined the study of water, air, food purity, sanitation and industrial waste disposal into the science of ecology.

Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey

Studied gorillas in Africa - wrote Gorillas in the Mist - died in 1985, presumably killed by poachers.

Jane Van Lawick-Goodall

Jane Van Lawick-Goodall

Originally brought to Africa to work with Louis Leakey, Goodall began her work with chimpanzees in the Gombe Stream Reserve in 1970. By close observation, she documented the social organization of chimps in the wild, including their social nature, their tool-making, their occasional systematic killing of one another, their hierarchy and their social development. She's also worked for the conservation of chimpanzees in the wild and for better conditions for chimps in zoos and research institutions, through speaking and writing, raising funds, and through the Jane Goodall Institute.

Winifred Goldring

Winifred Goldring

Appointed official state paleontologist in 1939, the first woman to hold that position. Although she often found herself passed over for desired positions and honors because she was a woman, she was persistent and determined in her chosen field. In 1949, she became the first woman elected as president of the Paleontological Society, and she also served as vice president of the Geological Society of America.


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