Sexism and science have been intertwined since the dawn of time. Men have long taken credit for scientific discoveries that women had made. Although there are more unknown women of science, five remarkable ones stand out.
Rosalind Franklin - 1920-1958
Rosalind Franklin at age 15 knew she wanted to be a scientist. Although discouraged from chasing her dreams, she went onto Cambridge University (one of the only colleges that would accept women) and studied chemistry. In college she flourished and was even offered a research scholarship upon graduating. She struggled with her first year of work in R.G.W. Norrish’s lab. Norrish saw that Franklin was very intelligent, but he was wary of a female scientist.
Soon after, Norrish was offered a job with Coal Utilization Research Association (CURA.) Once again Franklin was experiencing success. She produced many research papers on the physical structure of coal. Still, though, she knew she could do more. She moved to Paris in 1947, where she was introduced to Marcel Mathieu, a fellow researcher. He led her to Jacques Mending, who would go on to teach Franklin about x-ray diffraction techniques.
In 1951 Franklin reached her destiny when she was hired to jumpstart an X-ray crystallography unit at King’s College. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “Working with a student, Raymond Gosling, Franklin was able to get two sets of high-resolution photos of crystallized DNA fibers. She used two different fibers of DNA, one more highly hydrated than the other. From this she deduced the basic dimensions of DNA strands, and that the phosphates were on the outside of what was probably a helical structure.” She showcased her findings at a lecture at King’s College. James Watson was there to witness the lecture, where he took her findings and plagiarized them in his book, The Double Helix. Maurice Wilkins, a man who Franklin has worked with in matters not related to the discovery of the double helix, took her x-ray image and showed it to James Watson and Francis Crick. Although Watson and Crick did somewhat contribute to the discovery of the double helix, it is clear that they wrongfully stole the majority of Franklin’s research and gave her little credit for her hard work. They would go onto gain Nobel prizes. She would go on to be largely erased from the history books.
After her groundbreaking work in x-ray research, she studied molecular structure of viruses. Today, she is slowly getting recognition, as she has a college named after her, but teachers still give her little to no credit in her contribution to discovering the DNA double helix.
Mary Anning 1799-1847
Mary Anning had even more to overcome than Franklin. She was a poor girl growing up in the early 1800s near the south shores of Great Britain, and she could not even afford schooling. Her family was also shunned from society when they separated from the Church of England because they were Protestant. Her childhood was filled with heartbreak, as only one out of nine of her siblings reached maturity. On top of that, her father Richard died in 1810. Richard occasionally collected fossils, and he passed down that passion to his wife and children. Mary had always been fascinated by fossils, but now what had been an interest became a lifesaver. This was the Annings’ support system. Luckily for them there were plenty of fossils where they lived.
One fateful day a professional fossil collector, Thomas Birch, stumbled upon their fossil collection and was quite impressed. He helped them out greatly. With his guidance the Annings’ fossils became renowned. Their findings were often given to Nobel people, scientists, and museums. Although their fossils were long known, the Annings were quickly forgotten. They were rarely given credit for the historical discoveries. Out of the family, Mary was said to be the smartest. She could recognize what a fossil was just at a quick glance. She even discovered previously unknown fossils. At age twelve she helped discover the first Ichthyosaurus. Sadly, even today’s paleontologists do not know about one of the most revolutionary paleontologists of all time.
Gertrude Elion 1918-1999
Tragedies in the life of Gertrude Elion inspired her to go into medicine. The deaths of Elion’s fiancé and grandfather may have saved millions of lives. She faced many setbacks throughout her life. She was rejected from 15 colleges and had much trouble securing a job. Having parents who were both immigrants, Elion knew what it took to overcome adversity. She was lucky to be alive. On the day she was born, her New York City apartment pipes froze and burst. Elion, though, had a happy childhood. Growing up in the Bronx, she spent her days playing in the parks and sightseeing at the zoo. She also was given a good, but basic education. Although the Great Depression was hard on her family, thanks to lucky breaks she was able to go to college. She had good enough grades to get into Hunter College, an all-girls school and, thankfully, it was free. She chose to major in science with a focus in chemistry. During her years in college, she and her classmates were told multiple times that since they were women they could never have successful careers. Ironically, Elion’s classmates went onto be teachers and have jobs in the science field.
Also, while in college and in the beginning of Elion’s career, she discovered that she hated manual and repetitive tasks. Research was her destiny. She wanted to help cure diseases, and that she did. She was promoted quickly many times throughout her career. She became head of the department of Experiment Therapy. She saved lives with her research in medical drugs, chemistry, enzymology, pharmacology, immunology and virology, and tissue culture laboratory.
In her personal life, Elion loved to travel, go to operas, and spend time with her family. Although she never married, she was very close to her brother’s children. Elion was also a part of the National Cancer Institute and continued to impact lives with her research up until her death in 1999. Elion has been given many awards and honors, including a Nobel Prize.
Henrietta Leavitt 1868-1921
Henrietta Leavitt did not discover her passion until her senior year of college at the Society for Collegiate Instruction of Women. She fell in love with astronomy after taking a few classes in it. Astronomy opened up a whole new world to her; one that was much bigger than Cambridge Massachusetts. Leavitt, a preacher’s daughter, would go on to become a pioneer in many ideas surrounding astronomy.
Shortly after college she battled a serious illness that led her to becoming seriously deaf. This did not stop her from chasing her dreams. Two years after her battle with the illness, she began volunteering at Harvard Observatory and became part of their permanent staff seven years later. She was given little freedom to do theory research work, but was the head of the photographic photometry department, where she studied images of stars to determine their magnitude. Leavitt would go on to discover 4 novas and 2,400 variable stars, which were half of the known ones to man during that time.
Later, she would do revolutionary research in the cepheid variable period luminosity. Cepheids were a type of star that Leavitt studied to find out more about the relativity of brightness and dimness of stars. This work would inspire some of the most well-known astronomers. Leavitt also developed a standard of photographic measurements for space, which was accepted among expert scientific groups. Just like we have yet to discover much of outer space, sadly, the world will never discover the Leavitt’s full potential as a scientist. Due to her being a woman, she was largely limited on what she could do or research.
Chien-Shiung Wu 1912-1997
Inspired by Marie Curie, Chien- Shiung Wu wanted little more than to be a scientist. Wu’s parents started Mingde School for Girls. This is where Wu discovered a passion for science, specifically physics. To further her education, at the age of ten or eleven she was sent to Suzhou Girls’ High, nearly fifty miles away from home. She did so well in high school that she was accepted into Nation Center University in Nanjing and was even exempt from some of the requirements to make it into the institution.
After college, Wu had to make the tough decision to leave her family for American graduate school. She would never see her parents again, and due to World War Two, she would rarely hear from them. This did not stop her from becoming a well-known scientist. After graduate school she used her hard work and determination to make a name for herself. Nobel Prize winners were advised to go to her for help with physics, and she was said to have the most trustworthy experiments. In 1944, Wu joined the top-secret Manhattan Project, which involved her in the Department of War, where she studied uranium enrichment and radiation detection at Columbia University. In 1945 she expressed regret with her help in the development of the atomic bomb. Hiroshima and Nagasaki broke her heart, but she had faith that humanity would never use such destruction again.
After her war efforts, she went onto disprove the law of conservation of parity. She worked day and night with Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Yang, and her work paid off when she made it onto the New York Times cover. Lee and Yang’s work also paid off when they were given a Nobel Prize. Wu, however, never received the prize for the same work in disproving a law.
Although the acceptance of women in science has come a long way, there is still work to do. Today, there is a 4:1 ratio of men to women in computer science; only 11 percent of engineers are women; and according to the American Medical Association, only 19 percent of all surgeons are female. There is much hope for women in the science field, though. The gender gap in science overall has been closing over the years. Thanks to pioneer scientists of the past and today, maybe one day there will be no large gender gap in the fields of science.
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