Female scientists

Discover the women who have been making invaluable contributions to science for thousands of years. Often maligned, ridiculed, ignored, and even banned from practicing, these women refused to bow to conformity.

This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by Vida Systems, now available on Google Arts & Culture.

Female scientists by Vida Systems

The women below represent a small selection of brave scholars who deserve recognition.

Hypatia

The daughter of a famous mathematician, Hypatia lived in Egypt almost 2,000 years ago. A formidable scholar in her own right, Hypatia studied philosophy and astronomy and was regarded as the most important mathematician of her time. She was threatened throughout her career and ultimately killed for being a female scholar by Christians who believed that women should not be intellectuals. 

Alexandria

Hypatia was born in the year 370 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt, where her father Theon was a mathematician and astronomer. Alexandria was considered to be the center of learning at the time.

Teacher

Hypatia was a renowned teacher of high–level mathematics. She was greatly admired by her students (all of whom were male) and her public lectures were very popular.

Literature

Hypatia wrote many scrolls (books did not exist) analyzing mathematical theories and explaining philosophy. Unfortunately a fire destroyed the library at Alexandria and all her work was lost. 

Astrolabe

Debate exists among historians as to whether Hypatia invented the astrolabe, a device used by astronomers and navigators to measure the inclined position of a celestial body.  Hypatia certainly constructed astrolabes and understood how to use them throughout her career.

Death

Hypatia was tortured and then murdered by a mob of Christians around 415 A.D. They then spread rumors that she had been working with the Devil. 

Caroline Herschel

Accomplished astronomer Caroline Herschel lived during the late 1700s. She worked closely with her brother William, who was a telescope manufacturer and was the first woman to discover a comet. Her studies and achievements forced the male–dominated science field to officially recognize her as a scientist—the first woman to ever be professionally recognized. 

Old maid

Caroline suffered from a disease that stunted her growth as a child. As a result, Caroline’s mother trained her to be a housekeeper, believing no man would want to marry her.

William

 In 1772 Caroline moved in with her brother William to serve as his housekeeper. A keen astronomer, William discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 and was later appointed court astronomer to King George III.

Independent study

As well as helping her brother map the night sky, Caroline independently studied the stars. She is attributed with discovering 14 new nebulae, clouds of gas and dust in outer space.

Comet

In 1786 Caroline noted a slow-moving celestial object. She wrote to other astronomers asking them to verify the object and became the first woman to discover a comet. 

Recognition

King George III officially paid her as William’s assistant, making her the first paid woman scientist. She was also awarded the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society and received an honorary membership. 

Discoveries

During her lifetime Caroline discovered a total of 8 comets and 14 nebulae. She also created detailed maps of the night sky, some of which are still used today.

Grace Hopper

Grace Hopper, known as the First Lady of Software, is the founder of how computer programming works today. Without her, mankind would not have landed on the Moon, and her Deep Space Networks are currently still in use with the Mars Curiosity, New Horizons, and Voyager programs. 

PhD

Grace earned her undergraduate degrees in mathematics and physics from Vassar College. She later received a PhD in mathematics from Yale in 1934, one of very few people to do so at the time. 

Military

In 1943 Grace enlisted in the military and worked on computer programming. She tried to retire at the age of 60 but was repeatedly called back due to her brilliance and served until she was 79.

Common language

Grace’s team created the first compiler for computer languages—a program that translates real world instructions into computer language. This led to the development of a common computing language used around the world, so computers everywhere can understand each other.  

Bug

The term “computer bug” was popularized by Grace. While trying to work out why a computer wouldn’t work, she discovered a moth inside the computer. She joked that she was “debugging” the machine and the term stuck.

Marie Curie

Polish scientist Marie Curie was a pioneer in the world of radioactivity. She is the first woman to ever win a Nobel Prize despite heavy discrimination and even threats throughout her career. Due to her close work with radioactive materials, Marie died from advanced leukemia in 1934. She and others had no idea about the dangerous properties of radioactive substances. 

Education

Marie was not allowed to attend university in Russia–occupied Poland because she was female. She instead studied secretly from home while she saved money to leave Poland.

Pierre

Marie met her future husband while looking for a larger lab space for herself. Their mutual interest in science brought them together and they married and worked together as a team.

Radioactivity

Marie was curious as to why uranium emitted rays without a power source. Her hypothesis was groundbreaking. She theorized that the emissions were part of the atomic chemistry of uranium. 

Subatomic

Her subatomic hypothesis was revolutionary because at the time it was thought that the atom was the smallest unit of matter. Marie’s theory meant that subatomic particles existed. 

New elements

Marie’s work in studying radioactive ore led to the discovery of 2 new elements: polonium, named after Poland and radium, named after the Latin word for rays.

Nobel Prize

Marie won 2 Nobel Prizes for her work. When she was awarded the second, she was so heavily ridiculed and bullied that organizers asked her not to come to the ceremony. After advice from Albert Einstein she courageously attended anyway. 

The Trimates

“The Trimates” is a term used to describe 3 remarkable female scientists who have led the way in understanding the behavior and biology of orangutans, gorillas, and chimpanzees. Their studies revolutionized not only how primate behavior is regarded but also the implications for human behavior as well.

Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall was the first person to observe that humans were not the only animal on Earth capable of making tools. She found that chimpanzees often used sticks to catch termites.

Chimpanzees

By closely observing chimpanzees as individuals rather than just a large group, Jane discovered they had a complex social hierarchy and even waged war among different tribes.  

Dian Fossey

Dian studied gorillas closely and lost her life as a result. Defying orders to leave as gorilla poachers became increasingly violent, she essentially lived among gorillas to learn about their behaviors. She was ultimately murdered at a Rwandan research site.

Gorillas

Dian’s tireless work saw her accepted by gorillas as one of their own. She studied their social behaviors and was key in raising awareness of the gorilla’s plight in regards to poaching around the world.  

Biruté Galdikas

Biruté was sent to research the largely solitary orangutan, a species located deep in the jungles of Indonesia. It took her 12 years before orangutans trusted her enough to allow close observation of their behaviors.

Orangutans

Biruté discovered that orangutans are slow breeders (females need to be at least 15). Additionally, females invest a lot of energy into raising young (like humans). This makes them particularly vulnerable to change and Biruté works to protect these animals. 

Rosalind Franklin

The research work of chemist Rosalind Franklin was pivotal in understanding the structure of DNA. Many believe that Rosalind was served a great injustice when she was overlooked for a 1962 Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Watson, Crick, and Wilkins for their work on DNA. 

Degrees

The university in the United Kingdom where Rosalind studied and received her degree refused to recognize women scholars until 7 years after Rosalind graduated with a degree in chemistry.

Hostile

Rosalind faced intense pressure and open bullying from her male colleagues. Wilkins, who would later be awarded the Nobel Prize, actually gave away her research without Rosalind’s knowledge or consent to Watson and Crick.

DNA

Rosalind was the first person to take a photograph of a strand of DNA, using X-ray diffraction techniques. Her photo proved that DNA was a double helix.

Viruses

After effectively being bullied out of her previous university, Rosalind began studying viruses. She published 17 papers and established the beginnings of structural virology. She made significant discoveries about polio in particular.

Tu Youyou

Tu Youyou is the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize for her work in creating a drug that has saved millions of lives. Tu isolated the active ingredient found in a plant traditionally used to treat malaria and developed a life saving medication. The ingredient discovered is now the leading drug dispensed to fight the disease. 

Mao’s China

In 1969 Chairman Mao directly ordered Tu to find a cure for malaria. She was head of the top secret research group Mission 523.

Mission 523

The research group studied ancient medical texts to see how the disease was treated in the past. 

Sweet wormwood

In one text (which was hundreds of years old) Tu found a reference to sweet wormwood being used to treat the disease.

Artemisinin

Tu isolated the active ingredient, now known as artemisinin by soaking the herb and created a medicine which is used to treat malaria. 

Test subject

The first human test subject Tu used was herself.

Studies

Despite winning a Nobel Prize for medicine Tu does not have a medical degree or a PhD. 

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