When it comes to notable figures in science, the conversation is almost always dominated by men. So today, we want to share some notable historic female scientists that you might not know about.
Flossie Wong-Staal, Ph.D. (1946-2020) was a Chinese-American virologist and molecular biologist who was the first to clone HIV and helped discover HIV as the cause of AIDS. Her research helped lay the foundations for investigating treatments for emerging infectious diseases like COVID-19. After finishing a post-doctorate at the University of California, Wong-Staal started working at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1973. Flossie provided definitive molecular evidence that the human T-lymphotropic virus (HTLV) can cause cancer. Flossie soon rose to the rank of senior scientist and, in 1982, became section chief of the NCI Laboratory of Tumor Cell Biology. One of the most remarkable of Wong-Staal’s discoveries came in 1985 when she was part of a team that cloned HIV, leading to the understanding of how it evades the immune system. In addition, her research helped lead to the development of blood tests to detect the presence of HIV.
Mae Carol Jemison (1956-present) is a physicist and former astronaut known for being the first black woman to travel to space. She was born in Alabama and entered Stanford University at age 16, graduating with a BS in chemical engineering in 1977. While attending Cornell Medical School, she studied in Cuba and Kenya and worked at a Cambodian refugee camp. She joined the Peace Corps in 1983 before being inspired by Sally Ride and Guion Bluford to join NASA’s astronaut training program. In 1989, Jamison was selected to join the STS-47 crew as Mission Specialist 4 and was also designated Science Mission Specialist, a new astronaut role being tested by NASA to focus on scientific experiments. Following her historic flight, Jemison noted that society should recognize how much both women and members of other minority groups can contribute if given the opportunity. After leaving the astronaut corps in March 1993, Jemison accepted a teaching fellowship at Dartmouth. She also established the Jemison Group, a company that seeks to research, develop and market advanced technologies.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) was an English chemist and X-ray crystallographer whose work was central to the understanding of the molecular structures of DNA, RNA, viruses, coal, and graphite. Although her works on coal and viruses were appreciated in her lifetime, her contributions to the discovery of the structure of DNA were largely recognized posthumously, for which she has been variously referred to as the “wronged heroine” and “the dark lady of DNA.” After attending Newnham Women’s College at Cambridge University studying physics and chemistry, Franklin went to work for the British Coal Utilization Research Association, where her work on the porosity of coal became her Ph.D. thesis. In 1946, Franklin moved to Paris, where she perfected her skills in X-ray crystallography, which would become her life’s work. While working at King’s College with Maurice Wilkins on finding the structure of DNA, she took the beautiful “photo 51,” showing the helix shape of a DNA molecule. Using Franklin’s photograph and their own data, Watson and Crick created their famous DNA model to win the Nobel Prize in 1962. Franklin’s contribution was not acknowledged, but after her death, Crick said that her contribution had been critical. She died from ovarian cancer at age 37, continuing to work even while she was ill.
Sophia Louisa Jex-Blake (1840-1912) was the first British female doctor who successfully lobbied to pass legislation (1876) that allowed women in Britain to receive the M.D. degree and a license to practice medicine and surgery. She attended Queen’s College in London, and despite strong opposition, she and the Edinburgh Seven were admitted to the Edinburgh Medical School in 1869. However, due to the discriminatory policies at Edinburgh, she was forced to switch to the University of Bern, where she graduated in medicine. She was successful in having Parliament pass an act allowing women into medicine and later founded two medical schools for women and a women’s hospital. She is regarded as one of the most important figures in allowing British women to become doctors.
Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), Countess of Lovelace, was an English mathematician who has been called “the first computer programmer” for writing an algorithm for a computing machine in the mid-1800s. When she was a teenager, her mathematical talents led her to a long working relationship and friendship with fellow British mathematician Charles Babbage, who is known as “the father of computers”. She was in particular interested in Babbage’s work on the Analytical Engine. In 1843, she published a translation from the French of an article on the Analytical Engine by an Italian engineer, Luigi Menabrea, to which Ada added extensive notes of her own under the pseudonym “A.A.L.” The Notes included the first published description of a stepwise sequence of operations for solving certain mathematical problems, and Ada is often referred to as ‘the first programmer’. She noted, “The Analytical Engine weaves algebraic patterns just as the Jacquard loom weaves flowers and leaves” (1843).
Of course, these are just a few of the many inspiring women that have changed the course of modern scientific knowledge. While women have made large gains in entering the STEM field, there is still work to be done as women only make up about a quarter of computer workers and 15% of those in engineering occupations. We hope that by learning more about these strong women in STEM, more people will be inspired to follow in their footsteps. If you would like to learn more about some inspiring role models, please visit https://www.sciencefocus.com/science/10-amazing-women-in-science-history-you-really-should-know-about/ or https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/ten-historic-female-scientists-you-should-know-84028788/?page=1.