Marie Curie was the first female scientist to earn a Nobel Prize, and she remains the only woman to win one twice. She also was the first female professor at the University of Paris.
Along with her husband, Pierre Curie, and physicist Henri Becquerel, Marie helped discover radioactive particles and the theory behind them. She even came up with the term “radioactivity” and often led the group in their investigations. She also discovered two new elements—polonium and radium.
It was Marie’s idea to start studying the treatment of tumors with radioactive isotopes. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and Warsaw, which are important medical research centers, even today.
Unfortunately, Marie was unaware of the dangers of radioactivity—she often studied the substances with no protective gear whatsoever. Eventually, she died from aplastic anemia caused by long-term exposure to radiation. To this day, her journals and research notes are too radioactive to be handled and are kept in lead-lined boxes.
The daughter of legendary Marie Curie, Irene made a name for herself from her own accomplishments—she and her husband discovered artificial radioactivity. She met her husband while she was earning her doctorate and was asked to teach him laboratory techniques for studying radioactive chemicals.
Like her mother, Irene received a Nobel Prize for her work and her family still holds the title for the most Nobel laureates. Her children, Helene, and Pierre are also highly-regarded scientists. Without a doubt, scientific brilliance runs in this family.
If any female scientist has earned the title of celebrity in our time, it’s Jane Goodall, a woman widely recognized as the foremost expert on chimpanzees. She didn’t just earn the title overnight—Goodall spent 55 years studying social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees in Tanzania.
Goodall had been fascinated by chimps ever since she was a child. It wasn’t long before she obtained a position working with noted Kenyan paleontologist Louis Leakey, who was seeking a chimpanzee researcher to help him draw conclusions on early hominoids. Leakey must have been impressed with Goodall because he sent her to Cambridge University, where she became the eighth person in the school’s history to obtain a Ph.D. without first obtaining a bachelor’s degree.
Aside from her studies in the wild, Goodall has become a well-known spokesperson for conservation and animal welfare. She has even founded some charities, research institutes and advocacy groups to further her goals.
Nuclear power and weaponry wouldn’t be possible without the pioneering work of Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn. The duo was responsible for discovering the fission process that split an atomic nucleus into two smaller nuclei, which is then accompanied by an enormous energy release.
Unfortunately, despite playing a critical role in that scientific discovery, Hahn was awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in chemistry and Meitner was otherwise ignored. Even after numerous scientists and journalists protested that her exclusion was unfair, the committee has yet to announce any formal recognition of her work.
That’s not to say Meitner hasn’t been honored in other ways. She was awarded the Leibniz Medal by the Berlin Academy of Sciences, received five honorary doctorates and was the first woman to become a professor of physics in Germany. In 1946, the American National Press Club named her “Woman of the Year” and in 1955, she was awarded the first Otto Hahn Prize from the German Chemical Society. The chemical element 109 (meitnerium) is named after her, and craters on the Moon and Venus bear her name as well. Even so, her awards have been long overshadowed by her exclusion from the Nobel Prize.
Meitner was not the first (or last) woman to be ignored by the Nobel Prize committee. Jocelyn Bell Burnell discovered and started analyzing radio pulsars in 1967, but when she showed them to her thesis supervisor, Antony Hewish, he was skeptical, insisting her discovery was merely a result of manmade interference. Hewish eventually came around and published a paper on the phenomenon. Bell was listed second on the paper, as one of its five authors. Nevertheless, the Nobel Prize was awarded to Hewish and Martin Ryle—Bell was excluded from the prize.
Scientists have criticized the decision, noting that Bell first discovered and analyzed the pulsars. She even helped build the telescope that was so crucial in their discovery. (Surprisingly, Bell was not upset by the decision and even joked about being “in good company.”)
Bell received many other honors for her work. She was named the president of the Royal Astronomical Society, president of the Institute of Physics, president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and pro-chancellor of the University of Dublin. She also received honorary degrees from over twenty colleges including Cambridge and Harvard, and many awards including the Woman of the Year Prudential Lifetime Achievement Award.
If you’ve ever recited the tongue twister “she sells seashells by the seashore,” then you have Mary Anning to thank.
Why is Mary Anning so famous for selling seashells? Because these weren’t just any seashells, they were fossils that made a significant contribution to paleontology, by helping to enhance the scientific community’s understanding of Earth’s history.
Anning climbed cliffs along the English Channel at Lyme Regis in Dorset, England. It was incredibly dangerous work, and she almost died in a landslide in 1833, which did take the life of her dog. It did pay off, though—she uncovered the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton, two full plesiosaur skeletons, and the first pterosaur skeleton located outside Germany.
Unfortunately, despite her crucial work, she struggled financially for the majority of her life and was never accepted as a member of the 19th-century scientific community due to her gender. It wasn’t until after her death in 1847 that she started getting the attention she deserved. In 2010, the Royal Society included her on their list of the most influential British women in science.
Much of what we now know about how chromosomes work is directly related to the work of Barbara McClintock. McClintock focused on genetics and produced the first genetic map for corn, which showed how chromosomes would affect physical traits. From there, she was able to demonstrate that genes can turn physical characteristics on or off.
Her research was so far ahead of its time that she was highly criticized to the point where she stopped publishing her work by 1953. Fortunately, it was eventually rediscovered and accepted, and she began receiving some awards for her work, including a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1983.
Female scientists are hardly a modern concept. One of the earliest who make a name for herself was Hypatia of Alexandria. She lived in the latter half of the fourth century and was the daughter of a famous Alexandrian mathematician. After becoming educated in Athens, she assisted her father in his work. Soon, she became the head of the Neoplatonist School in Alexandria, where she taught philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy. Many considered her to be the world’s leading mathematician and astronomer of her time, which may be the only time a woman was labeled as such.
While not related to her scientific achievements, Hypatia is also famous for being killed by a mob of Christian zealots in 415 A.D. Many historians consider her death to be significant, arguing that it marks the end of Classical antiquity and Alexandrian intellectualism.
While she may not be as famous as Hypatia, Aglaonice is considered to be the first female astronomer in ancient Greece, living at some point during the first or second century B.C. Her command of the lunar cycles and ability to predict lunar eclipses led many to believe she was a sorceress who had the power to pull the moon from the sky.
Plato, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Plutarch wrote about Aglaonice. Little is known about her life, but it seems unlikely that she was merely a legend. One of the craters on Venus has since been named after her.