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Ten Significant Female Researchers You Should Know

Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, the offspring of the French court’s chief of protocol, married the marquis du Chatelet in 1725. She lived the life of a flatterer and bore three children. But at age 27, she started studying mathematics and then shifted to physics. This curiosity strengthened as she started a relation with the philosopher Voltaire, who was also fond of science. Their scientific associations—they prepared a laboratory at du Chatelet’s home, Chateau de Cirey, and, in a bit of a rivalry, each entered an essay into a competition on the nature of fire (neither won)—outlived their romance. Du Chatelet’s most lasting influence on science was her French conversion of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today. At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following problems during the birth of their child.

Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)

Herschel was little more than the household worker for her parents in Hanover, Germany (she would later define herself as the “Cinderella of the family”), when her older brother, William, took her to England in 1772 to run his home in Bath. After she grasped the art of singing—to accompany William, who was the organist for the Octagon Chapel—her brother swapped careers and went into astrophysics. Caroline followed. In addition to supporting her brother in his studies and in the construction of telescopes, Caroline turned out to be a brilliant astrophysicist in her own right, found new nebulae and star clusters. She was the first woman to found a comet (she found eight in total) and the first to have her work issued by the Royal Society. She

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)

In 1811, Mary Anning’s brother witnessed what he believed was a crocodile skeleton in a seaside cliff near the family’s Lyme Regis, England, home. He charged his 11-year-old sister with its retrieval, and she ultimately dug out a skull and 60 vertebrae, selling them to a private collector for £23. This find was no croc, though, and was ultimately named Ichthyosaurus, the “fish-lizard.” Thus initiated Anning’s long profession as a fossil hunter. In addition to ichthyosaurs, she discovered long-necked plesiosaurs, a pterodactyl and hundreds, probably thousands, of other fossils that helped researchers to draw a picture of the marine world 200 million to 140 million years ago throughout the Jurassic. She had little formal education and so educated herself anatomy, geology, paleontology and scientific illustration. Researchers of the time traveled from as far away as New York City to Lyme Regis to refer and hunt for fossils with Anning.

Mary Somerville (1780 – 1872)

Fascinated by the x’s and y’s in the answer to a math question in a ladies’ fashion journal, 14-year-old Mary Fairfax of Scotland delved into the study of algebra and mathematics, challenging her father’s restriction against such pursuits. Her studies were sidetracked by a marriage, in 1804, to a Russian Navy captain, but after his death she came back to Edinburgh and became tangled in intellectual circles, relating with people such as the writer Sir Walter Scott and the researcher John Playfair, and continued her studies in math and science. Her next husband, William Somerville, whom she wed in 1812, aided these efforts, and after they moved to London, Mary became host to her own intellectual circle, which included the astrophysicist John Herschel and the discoverer Charles Babbage. She started testing on magnetism and created a series of writings on astronomy, chemistry, physics and mathematics. She translated astrophysicist Pierre-Simon Laplace’s The Mechanism of the Heavens into English, and though she was unconvinced with the result, it was used as a textbook for much of the next century. Somerville was one of the first two women, along with Caroline Herschel, to be titled honorary members of the Royal Astronomical Society.

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.