Lesser-known Female Scientists You Really Should Know

Like in many other fields, males seem to dominate famous scientist lists. Sure, most people are familiar with Marie Curie and perhaps Rosalind Franklin, but if you ask a sample of ten people to name just five more women scientists, it’s likely that they will draw a blank. Yet Carl Sagan, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, and many other male scientists are household names. 

The intention of this website is to bridge that gap. Throughout history, women have been inHedy Lamarrvolved in developing the fields of mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and really – any and every field of science. Women have overcome many obstacles to be able to do this – they’ve taught themselves at home late at night after their children or younger siblings went to bed. They were denied formal education. They had to endure sexism, and their contributions were minimized and ignored. To this day, many of these brilliant women aren’t mentioned in schools. We’re here to recognize the efforts and contributions of these brilliant female scientists.

  1. June Almeida (1930-2007). She dropped out of school at age 16, but through her job at St Thomas’s Hospital Medical School, June Almedia became a leading virologist and earned a Doctor of Science on the basis of her research there. She identified the first human coronavirus with techniques that she pioneered – using antibodies to visualize viruses through electron microscopy. To read more about June Almeida, click here.
  2. Hedy Lamarr (1914-2000). One of the more famous female scientists (or at least one that is often included in these types of lists), Hedy Lamarr helped develop an early version of frequency-hopping spread spectrum – which served as the basis for many of the most important technological advancements of the past decades, including WIFI and Bluetooth. Read more about Hedy Lamarr here.
  3. Jane Goodall (1934-). Jane Goodall is considered the world’s leading expert on chimpanzees, with a career spanning over 60 years. Instead of using numbers to distinguish the different chimpanzees, as was common at the time, she gave them names. She observed and reported different personalities among them, as well as behaviors such as hugging, kissing, and ticking – behaviors that were thought to be unique to humans. Her work changed the way we view animals today.
  4. Mary Anning (1799-1847). Mary Anning’s childhood hobby of walking along the beach and collecting interesting finds turned into a later career as a paleontologist and fossil hunter. Like many women scientists of her time, she was self-taught, and could not fully participate in the scientific community – she was denied entry to the Geological Society of London and did not receive full credit for many of her discoveries and contributions. Still, her fossil discoveries could not be ignored: among them, the first correctly identified ichthyosaur skeleton and the first two nearly complete plesiosaur skeletons. Read more about Marry Anning here.
  5. Margaret Mead (1901-1978). Margaret Mead was an American Cultural Anthropologist whose findings and writings influenced the 1960s sexual revolution. Her book,  Coming of Age in Samoa, which was published in 1928, followed the sexual lives of teenagers in Samoa, and suggested that culture and upbringing had an influence on psycho-sexual development. The book was an important milestone in the nature vs. nurture debate and sparked controversy and discussion for years following.
  6. Esther Pohl (1869-1967). Esther Pohl was an American physician and public health pioneer who was also the first woman appointed to direct a department of health in a major U.S city (Portland, Oregon). Her leadership prevented an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague in Portland. Read more about Esther Pohl here
  7. Jocelyn Bell Burnell (born 1943). As a postgraduate student, she co-discovered radio pulsars – in fact, she was the first to observe this. Yet she was overlooked when the discovery was awarded a Nobel Prize.  Fortunately, she received recognition in 2018, when she was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. She used the money to set up a scholarship fund to help women, refugees, and minorities become physics researchers. 
  8. Lise Meitner (1878-1968).  Women were not allowed to attend public institutions of higher education in Vienna at the time, but Meitner taught herself and went on to become a physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Read more about Lise Meitner here
    Lise Meitner
    Lise Meitner
  9. Gertrude Elion (1918-1999). Like many other female scientists, Gertude Elion initially struggled to find research jobs that would take her seriously, despite her focus and dedication. She persevered, and her work in biochemistry and pharmacology led to the development of the AIDS drug AZT, as well as awarding her the Nobel peace prize (along with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black). 
  10. Helen B. Taussig (1898-1986). Partially deaf due to an ear infection in childhood, Helen Taussig became a cardiologist who used her fingers instead of a stethoscope to measure heartbeats in her clients. She pioneered the field of pediatric cardiology and became the first woman to serve as head of the American Heart Association. Her biggest legacy is developing the Blalock-Taussig shunt to deliver oxygen from the lungs to the heart of “blue babies”.
  11. Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-2012). Rita Levi-Montalcini devoted a large portion of her life to the discovery of NGF (nerve growth factor), a neuropeptide involved in the maintenance of the nervous system. She was awarded a Nobel Prize for her work and became the first Nobel Laureate to reach the age of 100. While living in hiding under a false identity during the Second World War, she set up a makeshift lab to continue her work. 
  12. Dorothy Mary Crowfoot Hodgkin (1910-1994). Dorothy Hodgkin was the third woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize in Chemistry for her discovery of the structure of vitamin B12, but her discoveries didn’t end there: she also discovered three-dimensional biomolecular structures, as well as the structure of penicillin and insulin. To this day, she remains the only woman to ever have been awarded the Copley Medal outstanding achievements in research in science.
  13. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997). Another example of a female scientist being overlooked by the Nobel Committee, Chien-Shiung Wu conducted the Wu Experiment, which showed that parity is not conserved, and led to her colleagues receiving the Nobel Prize in 1957. While she was mentioned in their acceptance speech, she wasn’t officially recognized for her role until she was awarded the Wolf Prize in 1978. She also made significant contributions to the development of the atom bomb through her work in the Manhattan Project. 
  14. Marie Tharp (1920-2006). Marie Tharp was an American geologist and oceanographic cartographer who created the first scientific map of the Atlantic Ocean floor, along with Bruce Heezan. Tharp was recruited to a Master’s program in petroleum geology during World War II, despite the fact that her Bachelor’s degree was in English and Music, and that only 4% of earth science doctorates at the time were obtained by women. 
  15. Caroline Herschel (1750-1848). Caroline Herschel was the first woman scientist to receive a salary, the first woman to Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and if that wasn’t enough, she was the first woman in England to hold a government position. An astronomer, she discovered several comets, including one that was named after her (35P/Herschel–Rigollet).
  16. Grace Hopper (1906-1992). Considered one of the pioneers of computer programming, Grace Hopper was one of the programmers of the Harvard Mark I computer and invented the first linkers. The COBOL language was inspired by her belief in a programming language based on English words. To top it all off, she was a rear admiral in the United States Navy, as well. 
  17. Valentina Tereshkova (1937-). She was the first and youngest woman to have flown in space in a solo mission (and later gave birth to the only person who had both a mother and a father who traveled in space). 
  18. Emmy Noether (1882-1935). A German mathematician, Emmy Noether worked without pay for years and lectured under her colleague’s name because of her gender, despite groundbreaking work – until Albert Einstein became her spokesman and she was permitted a small salary. She proved two theorems that were basic for both general relativity and elementary particle physics, as well as doing foundational work in algebra.

     

    Want to learn more about female scientists and other pioneering women? Follow our blog – we update regularly.

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