Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)
was also the first British woman to get rewarded for her scientific work, when William,
who had been named the king’s personal astrophysicist after his discovery of Uranus in 1781, convinced his patron to prize his assistant with an annual salary. After William’s death in 1822, Caroline retired to Hanover. There she continued her astrophysical work, compiling a directory of nebulae—the Herschels’ work had amplified the number of known star clusters from 100 to 2,500. She died in 1848 at age 97 after receiving many honours in her field, comprising a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
Mary Anning (1799 – 1847)
Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)
Maria Mitchell (1818 – 1889)
Young Maria Mitchell learned to see the stars from her father, who used astral observations to check the accuracy of timepieces for Nantucket, Massachusetts, whalers and educated his children to use a sextant and reflecting telescope. When Mitchell was 12, she assisted her father record the time of an eclipse. And at 17, she had already started her own school for girls, instructing them science and maths. But Mitchell speeded to the forefront of American astronomy in 1847 when she discovered a blurry streak—a comet—through her telescope. She was honoured around the world, receiving a medal from the king of Denmark, and became the first woman to be selected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 1857 Mitchell travelled to Europe, where she visited observatories and met with intellectuals, comprising Mary Somerville. Mitchell would write: “I could not help but admire [her] as a woman. The climb of the steep and rough path of science has not unfitted her for the drawing room circle; the hours of commitment to close study have not been incompatible with the responsibilities of wife and mother.” Mitchell became the first female astrophysics professor in the United States, when she was employed by Vassar College in 1865. There she continued her observations, chiefly those of the Sun, wandering up to 2,000 miles to observe an eclipse.
Lise Meitner (1878 – 1968)
When Lise Meitner completed school at age 14, she was banned from higher education, as were all girls in Austria. But, motivated by the findings of William Röntgen and Henri Becquerel, she was resolute to study radioactivity. When she turned 21, women were at last permitted into Austrian universities. Two years of teaching preceded her enrolment at the University of Vienna; there she outshined in math and physics and received her doctorate in 1906. She wrote to Marie Curie, but there was no room for her in the Paris lab and so Meitner made her way to Berlin. There she worked together with Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements, but as an Austrian Jewish woman (all three characters were strikes against her), she was omitted from the main labs and lectures and permitted to work only in the cellar. In 1912, the pair relocated to a new university and Meitner had better lab facilities.
However their partnership was divided up physically when she was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938, they continued to collaborate. Meitner sustained her work in Sweden and after Hahn found that uranium atoms were split when blasted with neutrons, she measured the energy released in the reaction and named the phenomenon “nuclear fission.” The discovery—which ultimately led to the atomic bomb (“You must not blame researchers for the use to which war engineers have put our findings,” Meitner would say in 1945)—won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner, ignored by the Nobel committee, declined to return to Germany after the war and continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.
Irène Curie-Joliot (1897 – 1956)
The elder daughter of Pierre and Marie Curie, Irène trailed her parents’ paths into the lab. The thesis for her 1925 doctor of science was on the alpha rays of polonium, one of the two elements her mother found. The next year, she married Frédéric Joliot, one of her mother’s helpers at the Radium Institute in Paris. Irène and Frédéric continued their teamwork inside the laboratory, pursuing study of the structure of the atom. In 1934, they found artificial radioactivity by bombarding aluminum, boron and magnesium with alpha particles to yield isotopes of nitrogen, phosphorus, silicon and aluminum. They earned the Nobel Prize in chemistry the next year, making Marie and Irène the first parent-child couple to have individually won Nobel prizes. All those years working with radioactivity took a toll though, and Irène died of leukemia in 1956.
Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
While studying botany at Cornell University in the 1920s, Barbara McClintock got her first taste of genetics and was addicted. As she received her undergraduate and graduate degrees and moved into postdoctoral work, she founded the study of genetics of maize (corn) cells. She followed her research at universities in California, Missouri and Germany before discovering a permanent home at Cold Spring Harbor in New York. It was there that, after seeing the patterns of coloration of maize kernels over generations of plants, she found that genes could move within and between chromosomes. The discovery didn’t fit in with conventional thinking on genetics, though, and was largely ignored; McClintock started studying the origins of maize in South America. But after better molecular techniques that became accessible in the 1970s and early 1980s verified her theory and these “jumping genes” were present in microorganisms, insects and even humans, McClintock was given a Lasker Prize in 1981 and Nobel Prize in 1983.
Dorothy Hodgkin (1910 – 1994)
Dorothy Crowfoot (Hodgkin, after her 1937 marriage) was born in Cairo, Egypt, to a pair of British archaeologists. She was directed home to England for school, where she was one of only two girls who were permitted to study chemistry with the boys. At 18, she registered in one of Oxford’s women’s colleges and studied chemistry and then relocated to Cambridge to study X-ray crystallography, a type of imaging that utilises X-rays to find a molecule’s three-dimensional structure. She reverted to Oxford in 1934, where she would devote most of her working life, teaching chemistry and using X-ray crystallography to study stimulating biological molecules. She spent years finalizing the technique, for which she was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1964, and discovered the structures of penicillin, vitamin B12 and insulin. In 2010, 16 years after her death, the British Royal Mail celebrated the 350th anniversary of the Royal Society by distributing stamps with the images of 10 of the society’s most memorable members, comprising Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin; Hodgkin was the only woman in the collection.
Rosalind Franklin (1920 – 1958)
James Watson and Francis Crick get praised for finding the structure of DNA, but their finding depends on on the work of Rosalind Franklin. As a teen in the 1930s, Franklin joined one of the few girls’ schools in London that educated physics and chemistry, but when she told her father that she desired to be a researcher, he prohibited the idea. He ultimately relented and she registered at Cambridge University, receiving a doctorate in physical chemistry. She learned methods for X-ray crystallography while in Paris, returning to England in 1951 to work in the laboratory of John Randall at King’s College, London. There she made X-ray imageries of DNA. She had almost figured out the molecule’s structure when Maurice Wilkins, another scientist in Randall’s lab who was also studying DNA, presented one of Franklin’s X-ray pictures to James Watson. Watson quickly guessed out the structure was a double helix and, with Francis Crick, published the discovery in the journal Nature. Watson, Crick and Wilkins won a Nobel Prize in 1962 for their finding. Franklin, though, had died of ovarian cancer in 1958.