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Top 10 Notable Women of History in Science

10. Dorothy Hodgkin

Did you take your vitamins today? Thank Dorothy Hodgkin. The daughter of authors and researchers who developed an interest in chemistry and crystals at the age of 10, Hodgkin was one of two girls allowed to study chemistry with the boys at the Sir John Leman School in the 1920s. Much of her career was spent at Oxford, where she worked closely with physicist John Desmond Bernal, extending his work on sterols, which were the subject of her thesis studies, and helped him make the first x-ray diffraction of pepsin. Despite contracting rheumatoid arthritis at 28 after her first child was born, despite the pain and swollen joints in her hands that made it hard to continue her delicate work with crystals under a microscope, in 1945 she created a three-dimensional description of a penicillin atom. She was elected to the British Royal Society for this work in 1947, two years after it allowed in the first woman. In 1963 she won the Nobel Prize – on her second nomination – for pioneering protein crystallography, a discovery that made it possible to develop synthetic and organic drug treatments and vitamins. We wouldn’t have modern drug treatments or vitamins without Hodgkin’s work. Scientists continue to use her methodology to ascertain materials’ atomic structures.

9. Rosalind Franklin

It may have taken humanity much, much longer to discover the double-helix structure of DNA without Rosalind Franklin’s work. It was her work that determined there were two forms of DNA, not just one, which helped further the discovery of the double-helix shape. She’s also the one who sussed out that the backbone of one side is not parallel to the other. Franklin knew, through her research, that hydrogen bonding was a cornerstone of DNA construction, just as she was keenly aware of the difference between enol and keto forms, the key to the base pairing that binds one side of the double-helix strand to the other. If left alone to work, and if it weren’t for Watson and Crick, it was estimated Franklin would have completed the image within a few months. She very much could have made all these discoveries without the men’s work; they could not have done so without her contributions. Yet they’re the ones with the glory and she’s the one for whom scientists are trying to gain recognition.

8. Barbara McClintock

Were you born with a weird gene that skipped a few generations? Barbara McClintock can tell you why, how it got there and what it means. McClintock, whose parents were of the “forget college, get yerself a husband!” variety, could not dissuade her from pursuing her curiosity, studying at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. While still in graduate school, she developed a technique that allowed the identification of all 10 maize chromosomes, which later led to the ability to link individual chromosomes and how genetic material crossed over from one strain to another. By studying the hereditary movement of genes within corn varieties, from the color of kernels to the way they grow and the conditions in which they thrive, McClintock was able to prove that genes and their deeply coded information can move around on a chromosome. This movement turns some genes on or off, depending on what they’re located near, and these changes can either carry over from one generation to the next or skip over generations.

7. Maria Goeppert-Mayer

If Edward Teller is the “father of the hydrogen bomb,” then Goeppert-Mayer is the mother. Just her admittance to Gottingen University was an accomplishment at the time, but after switching from math to physics, Goeppert was recognized for her brilliant mind. After marrying Joseph Mayer in 1930, they moved to the United States. She published a statistical math textbook and found work as a lecturer at Columbia University, but it was her work during the Manhattan Project that put Goeppert Mayer on the map. She studied isotope separation at the university’s Substitute Alloy Materials Laboratory, researching the chemical and thermodynamic properties of a uranium isotope and ways it might be possible to separate varieties from each other using photochemical reactions. Goppert Mayer envisioned the idea of a nuclear shell based on the most stable nuclei, research for which she won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 after years of dividing her time between Los Alamos – where she worked on the atomic bomb – and the University of Chicago, along with the Argonne National Laboratory.

6. Jane Goodall

The ability to shape the world around us sets apart from animals, right? Well, not so much chimpanzees. That’s profound. And we have this tiny powerhouse of a woman to thank for our understanding of them and ourselves. Inspired in no small part by the “Dr. Dolittle” series, about a doctor who could speak to animals, Goodall moved to Tanzania at the age of 26, quietly and patiently studying them from afar until they accepted her nearly as one of their own. Without formal college training at the time, she got her start in Africa at a local history museum, where a paleoanthropologist sent her to a game reserve to study chimps. She arrived at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in 1960 and eventually earned the trust of an adult male chimp. Her research and observations revealed that chimps eat meat as well as plants, are capable of using tools and can make the tools they need, much like humans do. Now a world-renown conservation and animal advocate, Goodall travels the globe speaking of the importance of preserving open spaces for people as well as the animals she loves so dearly.

5. Gertrude Elion

Have you known anyone with leukemia or a herpetic virus? They’re treatable because of Gertrude Elion. The daughter of Eastern European immigrants, Elion got her start at Hunter College at the City University of New York, earning a B.A. in chemistry in 1937. When World War II hit, much like in other industries, there was a high demand for women to take over scientific jobs. Elion stated at what would become GlaxoSmithKline as an assistant to George H. Hitchings, working side-by-side to develop revolution and first-of-their-kind drugs to fight leukemia, herpes and HIV/AIDS, in addition to establishing methods for creating drugs that can hone in on specific pathogens, thereby making them more effective. Among her many accolades, Elion received an honorary SD degree from Harvard in 1998, an honorary doctorate from Polytechnic University of New York in 1989 and, in 1988, she and Hitchings were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, which they shared with Sir James W. Black. In all, Elion held 45 patents, 23 honorary degrees and was considered the favorite aunt of her brother’s children.

4. Irene Joliot-Curie

How do you fill the shoes of a Nobel laureate? You win one for yourself—and that’s exactly what Irene Joliot-Curie did with her husband in 1935. Joliot-Curie discovered that radioactive elements could be produced from other stable elements. Her work was a precursor to that of the team working on the Manhattan Project in the 1930s and early 1940s. Joliot-Curie worked with her mother in field hospitals during WWI and operated x-ray machines her mother invented. When that war was over, she resumed her studies in Paris, specializing in chemistry and writing a thesis on radiation emitted by polonium. Working in partnership with her husband, Frederic Joilot, she determined that radioactive elements can be created from stable elements through a series of experiments that involved shooting alpha particles at aluminum foil and turning the foil radioactive. They won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1935 but their work was far from over. Unfortunately, all that work examining and experimenting with radiation was an occupational hazard of sorts and Joliot-Curie died of leukemia.

3. Hedy Lamarr

Statistically, you are probably reading this on your smartphone through a wi-fi connection. You have Hedy Lamarr to thank for that. The gorgeous actress was a pioneer of wireless communications after immigrating to the United States from Austria. Working with fellow inventor George Anthiel, she developed a communication system to fight the Nazis during WWII that functioned by manipulating radio frequencies. These transmissions created an unbreakable code that could not be solved by the German forces and allowed for the sending and receiving of coded messages without being obtained and revealed by the enemy. They received a patent on this technology in 1941 but, as tends to happen, the full use and ability of their invention was not appreciated until years later. The second application was naval warships during the Cuban Missile Crisis; this led to other military uses. The technology, known as “spread spectrum,” essentially made the digital age possible. Without Hedy Lamar, there would be no cell phones, no smartphones, no wireless communication or transmission of data at all. She and Anthiel were recognized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation in 1997 with the group’s Pioneer Award; later that year, Lamar was the first woman to receive the BULBIE™ Gnass Spirit of Achievement Award.

2. Lise Meitner

One of the pioneers of nuclear power, Lise Meitner started her career working next to a lab, unpaid for a year, as a “guest” of her partner Otto Hahn, despite being the second woman in all of Austria to earn a secondary degree. She met Hahn while studying at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Chemistry in the early 1910s; by 1917 they discovered protactinium, a new element. Within a few years, Meitner and Hahn were part of the international effort to find an element heavier than uranium, which inadvertently sparked the race to harness nuclear power. She and Hahn continued to work together after she fled Hitler’s Germany and realized via their correspondence that neutrons were not sticking to the nucleus of uranium but were instead being smashed in two. Their work was closely followed by Einstein, who told U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt about the power such atomic tinkering could unleash. Six years later, the atomic bomb was created. Meitner was horrified by the destruction indirectly made possible by her work. When Hahn was recognized for his work with a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, no mention was made of Meitner and her contributions. Sure, she had an element named after her (meitnerium), but she received no public acknowledgement for her efforts.

1. Marie Curie

Oh, Marie Curie. The first woman to win a Nobel Prize, the first person to win the award not once but twice, the first woman to be selected a Professor of General Physics at the Sorbonne, the first lady of radiation and x-ray technology. Curie, along with her husband, Pierre, discovered the elements polonium (named for Marie’s homeland of Poland) and radium while working with pitchblende, a mineral. She was inspired by the work of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen, who found that uranium sheds rays weaker than x-rays, and continued to experiment with uranium. Marie Curie found that the rays were constant regardless of form or condition. She theorized that the rays were linked to the element’s atomic composition and, in that moment, she launched the field of atomic physics and the term radioactivity. When Pierre was killed in an accident, Marie took over his teaching position at the Sorbonne. One of the couple’s daughters, Irene Joliot-Curie, would follow in her parents’ footsteps and continued their work in radioactive elements.

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British Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Hodgkin John Desmond Bernal Oxford


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