Today is International Women’s Day. This day was established in the effort to recognize the value of females in human societies around world. In the spirit of furthering this effort I would like to do my own part.
Recently a male Polish member of the European Parliament delivered an astounding series of statements with respect to the pay gap, arguing that females must, necessarily, earn less, because they are inferior in several ways to males. Most puzzling was his insistence on the inferiority of the female intellect. One does not have to go far to find a plethora of examples that challenge this.
In recognition of the numerous contributions that females have made to human thought, I have compiled a short list of some of the most influential female pioneers. It could easily be argued that all of those persons included on this list have had a greater influence on human understanding than the MEP who made the controversial statements. This is by no means an exhaustive list as there are many females who have made significant contributions and they cannot all be presented here.
I. Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848)
Caroline Herschel was born in Germany in 1750. She naturally took to the practice of astronomy and collaborated with her brother, William, to make many important discoveries. She was the first female to be named an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society and was elected to the Royal Irish Academy as an honorary member. In 1783, she discovered a nebula and independently discovered a known but uncatalogued galaxy. She was also the first woman to discover a comet and went on to discover several more over the course of her life. Working together, Caroline and William discovered over two thousand astronomical objects.
II. Marie Curie (1867-1934)
Marie Curie made some of the most important discoveries in modern physics and chemistry. Curie was the first female to be awarded the Nobel Prize. She was awarded the prize twice, once for physics (1903) and once for chemistry (1911). She was also the first female professor at the University of Paris. She and her husband, Pierre, are credited with having coined the term “radioactivity” and with having discovered the elements radium and polonium. Curie eventually died from health problems associated with her chronic exposure to radioactive elements like uranium. The element curium was later named for their research after its discovery in 1944.
III. Irene Joliot-Curie (1897-1956)
Irene Joliot-Curie was the daughter of Marie Curie. She continued the work of her mother. Her research, which she carried out with her husband, led to the discovery of nuclear fission. The couple was awarded the 1935 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of artificial radioactivity.
IV. Inge Lehmann (1888-1993)
Inge Lehmann was born in Denmark and pursued studies in mathematics at the University of Copenhagen and at Cambridge University. She advanced research in geophysics, discovering that the Earth’s inner core is, in fact, solid. Up until that point the most popular concept was that of an entirely liquid core. She is also responsible for the discovery of a seismic discontinuity, deep beneath the Earth’s surface. This discovery (Lehmann Discontinuity) is now named after her. Lehman holds the distinction of being the longest lived female scientist (104 years).
V. Gerty Theresa Cori (1896-1957)
Gerty Cori was born in Czechoslovakia and decided early on that she wanted to go into medicine. She subsequently entered medical school in 1914. In 1922, she and her husband immigrated to the U.S. and pursued medical research. Together, the couple published a substantial body of work investigating the intricacies of the metabolism of carbohydrates. They also discovered the compound glucose-1 phosphate. Cori and her husband were awarded the 1947 Nobel Prize in medicine for their discoveries. She was the first American female to receive it. She was the third female scientific Nobel Laureate.
VI. Barbara McClintock (1902 – 1992)
Barbara McClintock received her doctorate in botany from Cornell in 1927. She spent a significant portion of her career studying the genetics of maize (corn). It was because of this research that she discovered mobile genetic elements. For this discovery she was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in medicine. McClintock was the first woman to receive this honor without a co-recipient.
VII. Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972)
Maria Mayer studied mathematics at the university of Gottingen and did doctoral work in physics. Mayer is credited with the development of the nuclear shell model of the atom. During the Second World War she was a part of the Manhattan Project. She was awarded the 1963 Nobel Prize in physics, becoming the second female to receive the honor.
VIII. Rear Admiral Grace Brewster Murray Hopper (1906-1992)
Grace Hopper earned a master’s degree in 1930 and then a doctorate in mathematics from Yale in 1934. During the Second World War she joined the U.S. Navy Reserve and was sent to work on Harvard’s Mark I computer. Hopper was, unfortunately, too old for the Navy at this point and elected to remain in the reserve, working at Harvard. She later worked on UNIVAC I. During this period, Hopper invented the first computer language compiler. She was a pioneer in the field of computer programming and in the development of computer programming languages. Hopper was also the first woman to be made a Distinguished Fellow of the British Computer Society in 1973 and was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1991.
IX. Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994)
Dorothy Hodgkin entered Oxford University at the age of 18, pursuing a course of study in chemistry. She went on to make discoveries in the field of molecular biology. She published the first steroid structure and also contributed to essential research on penicillin. Hodgkin also worked on the structure of the vitamin B-12. She was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize for chemistry for her B-12 research.
X. Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958)
Rosalind Franklin studied chemistry at Cambridge. She went on to research the structure of the DNA molecule using X-ray technology. Her work was integral to the development Watson and Crick’s model of DNA, for which they received the 1962 Nobel Prize. Unfortunately Franklin died of ovarian cancer in 1958 at the age of 37.
XI. Jane Goodall (1934-)
Jane Goodall attended Cambridge University and obtained a doctorate in ethology. Goodall has devoted a substantial portion of her life to primate research and completely changed the field. Her research challenged previous assumptions about primate behavior, and presented new concepts, suggesting that apes were more like humans than previously thought.
XII. Margaret Hamilton (1936-)
Maragaret Hamilton studied mathematics at Earlham College. Later, she worked at MIT on weather tracking and predicting computer systems. This technology was eventually found to have Cold War air defense applications. Hamilton then went to work for NASA and was the head of the team that developed the software for the Apollo missions. She is one of the pioneers of software development and made contributions that led to the creation of portable computers.
XIII. Katrin Amunts (1962-)
Katrin Amunts is a neuroscientist at the University of Dusseldorf. She has been working for years to develop a three dimensional atlas of the human brain. Amunts’ team may make advances in medical research that could provide untold insight into neuroscience and human behavior.
XIV. Sara Seager (1971-)
Sara Seager is an astronomer at MIT who has made a sizable contribution to astronomical knowledge. She has discovered over 700 exoplanets in her investigation of the universe. She continues to study the composition of the atmospheres of other planets to determine their similarities to Earth’s atmosphere.
XV. Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-)
Iranian mathematician, Maryam Mirzakhani, is professor of mathematics at Stanford University. She studies abstract mathematics and has advanced our understanding of Riemann surfaces. She recently became the first female to be awarded the Fields Medal for her contributions to this area of mathematics.