Women Scientists in the Past
One might be surprised to learn that historically, women have always played a crucial role in the field of science, serving as observers, experimenters and even teachers. As early as the prehistoric times, women gathered food for their families and communities, learning by experimentation to distinguish between and classify hundreds of edible and medicinal plants. In addition, women of this time period observed changes in weather, temperature and the cycle of the seasons. Using this body of knowledge, women were able to conclude when plants were first available for use and the best kind of conditions for fostering plant life. These early botanists were the first women scientists.
In ancient Greece, women also made scientific contributions. The scientist Aglaonike mastered predicting precisely when eclipses would occur, and the philosopher Diotoma was honored as a teacher and mentor to Socrates. For centuries to come, women would continue (or try to continue) an active participation in the field of science. Their participation, however, was not met without myriad obstacles.
Gender stereotypes, societal and a familial norms and a significant lack of financial and educational access were just a few of the barriers women faced in achieving public recognition and support. Until the early nineteenth century, women’s education was limited to “Dame Schools,” where studies were restricted to subjects such as basic reading and writing and the more “feminine” topics of embroidery and etiquette. Beginning in the late 1820s, the United States underwent an educational renaissance, leading the rest of the world in the public and private education of women. Though women were gaining more access to education, they were still barred from the academic field of science, a program only found at select male-colleges. Despite this restriction, the early 19th century witnessed a deluge of popular books and textbooks written for women by women on subjects such as as botany, chemistry, and geology.
Gains and Contributions
It was not until the mid-1800s that women began gaining real traction in the field of science. The advent of colleges for women and the colleges’ inclusion of extensive scientific courses not only propelled the movement forward, but also shaped the futures of generations of women to come. As women finally gained access to education, they were able to more easily deepen their interest, subject knowledge and skill in the scientific field, though public recognition would always be a challenge. Here are a few women scientists of a considerable importance.
- Marie Curie: November 7, 1867-July 4, 1934. Only surpassed, perhaps, by Albert Einstein, Marie Curie is the most famous and celebrated scientist of her time. A two-time winner of the Nobel prize, Curie discovered radium and is noted for her realization that radioactivity is an intrinsic property of matter.
- Jane Goodall: Born April 3, 1934. A pioneering English primatologist. Goodall’s methods of studying animals in the wild changed not only how chimpanzees as a species are understood, but also how studies of many different kinds of animals are achieved.
- Maria Meyer: June 28, 1906-February 20, 1972. Physicist and distinguished professor, Meyer is credited with the discovery of the magic numbers and their explanation in terms of a nuclear shell model with strong spin-orbit coupling. She was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics, with J.H.D. Jensen who had independently proposed the strong spin-orbit coupling.
- Rachel Carson: May 27, 1907-April 14, 1964. A writer, scientist, and ecologist, Carson is noted for her activism, as she testified before Congress and challenged the harmful practices of agricultural scientists and the government. Her actions directly impacted the ways in which humankind views the natural world.
- Rosalind Franklin: July 25, 1920-April 16, 1958. As a pioneer molecular biologist, Franklin was responsible for a significant amount of the research and discovery work that led to the understanding of the structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, though it took many years before she was awarded credit and recognition.
- Barbara McClintock: June 16, 1902-September 2, 1992. McClintock received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for her work on “mobile genetic elements,” the ability of genes to change position on the chromosome. She was the first woman to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in that category.
- Rita Levi-Montalcini: Born April 22, 1909. An Italian neurologist awarded the Nobel Prize in 1986 for her discovery in nerve-growth factor, Levi-Montalcini is also distinguished Italian Senator for Life.
- Gertrude Elion: January 23, 1918-February 21, 1999. An American biochemist and pharmacologist whose research methods contributed to the development of the AIDS drug AZT, Elion was awarded the 1988 Nobel Prize.
- Christiane Nusslein-Volhard: Born October 20, 1942. German biologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995 for her research on genetic control of embryonic development.