11 Women in Science Who Changed the World

March is Women’s History Month, and what better way to celebrate than to remember the remarkable women in science who shaped the world as we know it? Choosing such a small number of women was tough and ordering their groundbreaking achievements would be even tougher. So in no particular order, let’s remember:

Two women talking with spooky blue lightbulbs floating above their heads.

Marie Curie

Chemist 1867 – 1934

Warsaw-born Marie Curie, changed the world through her work on radioactivity. In particular she is noted for her discovery of both Radium and Polonium (named after her native Poland). Together with her husband, her research and analysis was greatly influenced and inspired by the discovery of radioactivity in 1896.

The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman so far to win twice, Marie Curie gave her life to the field of Chemistry quite literally. Her research was often carried out in difficult conditions with prolonged exposure to radioactivity – the full dangers of which were still to be realized. On 4 July 1934 Marie Curie died aged 66. The cause of her death was aplastic pernicious anemia, a condition developed after years of exposure to radiation.

Mary Anning

Paleontologist 1799 – 1847

A fossil hunter from the South of England, Mary Anning’s contributions to paleontology were on as vast a scale as her discoveries. These included the first ichthyosaur skeleton, two complete plesiosaur skeletons and a pterosaur skeleton – the first found located outside of Germany. Her observations influenced geological and paleontological progression through the following centuries.

Although recognized in scientific circles for her work, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London. In the 19th century, the odds were stacked against Anning, as well as being a woman, she came from an impoverished background – nevertheless she succeeded in making a lasting imprint on our world, much like the fossils she discovered.

Ada Lovelace

Mathematician 1815-1852

Alongside Charles Babbage, Ada King, Countess of Lovelace, worked on the Analytical Engine – an early computer. Ada Lovelace was the first to realize that the engine could do more than simply calculate. She published the first algorithm used by such a machine. This notable discovery means that Ada Lovelace is widely recognized as the first computer programmer.

Ada Lovelace died aged only 36 from uterine cancer. She is buried in Nottinghamshire next to her father, the poet Lord Byron. Her work is considered invaluable in the creation of early computers and while her friendship with Charles Babbage was somewhat turbulent, it remained lifelong.

Katherine Johnson

Mathematician 1918 – present

Born in West Virginia, Katherine Johnson’s work calculating and analyzing the flight paths of spacecrafts was invaluable to the American space program. Over 30 years she contributed towards many successful missions including the first moon landing.

Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her mathematical achievements in 2015. The same year the book Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race was released. Alongside Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson and Katherine Johnson were all key women in science recognized in this work. In 2016 year the Oscar-nominated film of the same name was released.

Mary Jacobi

Physician 1842 – 1906

Mary Jacobi was an American physician. She attended pharmacy and medical schools in the United States as well as the École de Médecine in Paris, France. She had to fight for the right to her education, graduating in 1871. The same year she returned to the United States and started teaching, as well as opening her own practice in New York. The following year she started the Association for the Advancement of the Medical Education of Women, which would later evolve into the Women’s Medical Association of New York City.

She continued to teach and publish articles, books, and essays, with more than one hundred titles under her belt. Her continuous efforts of legitimizing women in the field of medicine have paved the way for those who came after her.

Valentina Tereshkova

Cosmonaut 1937 – present

The first woman and first civilian in space, Valentina Tereshkova was a textile worker selected by the Soviet space program and inducted into the Soviet Air Force. She had a background in skydiving having made her first jump aged 22. This interest played a key part in her selection from over 400 candidates. After retiring from her career as a cosmonaut, Tereshkova became a leading political figure in Russia in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Valentina Tereshkova has orbited the earth 48 times and remains to be the only woman ever to have been on a solo space mission. In an interview in 2013, Tereshkova said that she would go on a one way mission to Mars, should the opportunity arise…

Margaret Sanger

Nurse, Activist 1879 – 1966

Margaret Sanger was an activist and nurse who fought for both workers’ rights and women’s rights. Sanger coined the term “birth control” in The Woman Rebel, the paper she started in 1914. The federal government warned her that she had to shut down the paper, forbidding her from to sending it through the postal service and arrested her in August 1914. In preparation for her trial she wrote a book, Family Limitation, that detailed the methods that were available at the time along with illustrations. Before she had to appear in court, Sanger fled to England where the laws on birth control weren’t as harsh as those in the United States. She returned in 1915, still fighting for change. She opened the first birth control clinic in the country, which has since evolved into Planned Parenthood. The clinic led to another arrest, this time Sanger served 30 days in prison.

Without Sanger, we wouldn’t have the Pill. She drove the research that would lead to its development and got her close friend and fellow activist Katherine McCormick involved. McCormick put up most of the funding for the pill and oversaw the research and development of the Pill at the Worcester Foundation of Experimental Biology.

Vera Rubin

Astronomer 1928 – 2016

Vera Rubin was an astronomer who is most notably known for the discovery of dark matter. The existence of dark matter had never been proven, it was still only a theory set forth by Fritz Zwicky in 1933.

Together with fellow astronomer Kent Ford, Rubin’s research and Doppler observations led to evidence of Zwicky’s dark matter. In 1992, Rubin discovered the NGC 4550 galaxy and in1993 she received the National Medal of Science.

Caroline Herschel

Astronomer 1750-1848

Born in Hanover, Germany, Caroline Herschel changed the way we look at the night sky, together with her brother, Sir William Herschel. Despite her mother opposing her education (instead encouraging her to help on the management of the household), in 1786 she became the first woman to discover a comet. The following year she was awarded an annual sum of £50, making her the world’s first professional female astronomer.

After her brother’s death in 1822, she cataloged 2,500 nebulae and many star clusters. Aged 77 the Astronomical Society awarded her a gold medal. She lived for a further 20 years and was revered both in her lifetime (and still is today) for her contribution to astronomy.

Grace Hopper

Mathematician 1906 – 1992

Grace Hopper was a mathematician and pioneer in the field of computer science. Hopper was also a rear admiral in the US Navy. Hopper coined the term “bug” in reference to computer failure when an actual moth flew into Mark I, the IBM electromechanical computer that was used in World War II.

Hopper’s body of work includes designing an improved compiler that translated instructions into code. She was the oldest officer in the Navy when she retired at 79 in 1986. She received many awards, and in 2016 she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  

Rosalind Franklin

Chemist 1920 – 1958

Rosalind Franklin was a chemist who published research in different areas such as coal and viruses, but most notably contributed to the discovery of DNA structure. Franklin grew up in London and held research positions at the University of Cambridge, CURA, the Laboratoire Central des Services Chimiques de l’Etat, and King’s College. Franklin contributed to solving the structure of DNA with her  X-ray diffraction expertise.

Franklin died of ovarian cancer 1958. In 1962, James Watson, Francis Crick, and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work on the structure of DNA. This was made possible by Franklin’s contribution to science.

Women in Science And Natural Cycles

The contribution of women to science is a topic that’s close to our hearts here at Natural Cycles. A Natural Cycles’ founder, Elina Berglund, was a particle physicist who worked at CERN and contributed towards the discovery of the elusive Higgs Boson. After her time at CERN, Elina was looking for an alternative birth control method. The unmet need drove her to learn to code and so she wrote the algorithm for Natural Cycles. A hormone-free birth control app made by one woman for all women.

Sources:

www.nobelprize.org

www.britannica.com

www.amnh.org

www.dnaftb.org

www.plannedparenthood.org

 

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Written By

Jennifer Gray

A writer with a passion for women’s health, Jennifer Gray has years of experience writing about various reproductive health topics including birth control, planning pregnancy, women’s anatomy, and so much more.