Women Scientists in History


Women give and sustain life. They are the cornerstones of families, homes and nations. Not only do they have a crucial role in maintaining life, but they have undeniably and consistently contributed grealty to the progress of humanity and the development of civilization. To list all the great women who have excelled in all the fields of the arts, politics and sciences is impossible. However, here we will try to highlight a handful of the scientific achievements of women in history.

In Ancient Egypt, there were several great women scientists. This is attributed to the fact that women were respected individuals who enjoyed the privilege and freedom to receive good education and pursue careers outside their homes. As a matter of fact, there are more than one-hundred known female physicians during that era, the first of whom is Merit Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), the first woman scientist in history.

Another famous scientist of the Ancient World was Hypatia, who lived in Alexandria during the Hellinistic Period. Not only was she the first notable woman mathematician, she was also the Head of the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy in Alexandria and taught in the fields of astronomy and astrology.

Another great mathematician was Sutayta Al-Mahamli, who lived in the second half of the 10th century and who became an expert witness in the courts of Baghdad applying mathematical methods to analyse and solve intricate inheritance and commercial problems. It is said that she was an expert in arithmetic and successoral calculations, both being practical branches of mathematics, which were well developed in her time. It is also said that she invented solutions to equations that have been cited by other mathematicians, thus showing her mastery in algebra.

Women also contributed to the establishment of universities; hence, contributing to the advancement of civilization. Fatima al Fihri was such a woman; she came from a wealthy family and used her money to build Al Qarawiyyin College-Mosque complex in Fez, Morocco, in 841 CE. Al Qarawiyyin became an important center for education and was the oldest academic degree-granting university in the world, as well as one of the most prestigious.

In the 18th Century, the Scientific Revolution was important in setting the stage for modern science and marked a new way for scientific thought and analysis. Various women contributed to this new scientific outlook, one of which was Émilie du Châtelet who was a French mathematician, physicist and author. She translated Newton’s celebrated Principia Mathematica into French, with her own commentary. Her work of translation and commentary contributed significantly to the development of Newtonian science in Europe.

Another great scientist of that era was Maria Gaetana Agnesi; an Italian mathematician and philosopher, who is considered to be the first woman in the Western world to have gained a reputation in mathematics. Agnesi’s best-known work, Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth), in 1748, provided a remarkably comprehensive and systematic treatment of algebra and analysis, including such relatively new developments as integral and differential calculus. In its review of the Instituzioni, the French Academy of Sciences stated “We regard it as the most complete and best made treatise”. Pope Benedict XIV was similarly impressed and appointed Agnesi professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna in 1750.

Astronomers survey the heavens in the hopes of making new discoveries and better acquainting themselves with the old ones. Caroline Herschel was able to discover by telescope three nebulae in 1783 and eight comets from 1786 to 1797; she was the first woman to receive full recognition in the field of astronomy. A German-born British astronomer, she was noted for her contributions to the astronomical researches of her brother, Sir William Herschel, for she executed many of the calculations connected with his studies. None of the comets she discovered were named after her, but one of the moon’s craters was.

More recently, and after a long time spent in practicing and training, in 1983, Sally Kristen Ride became the first woman astronaut to orbit Earth in space. Her accumulative hours of space flight are more than 343 hours. Ride retired from NASA to follow other pursuits such as encouraging young women to study science and math, a project that is very close to her heart and one she works hard on. Her most recent enterprise is Sally Ride Science; an organization founded to provide support for all the girls who are, or might become, interested in science, math and technology.

The most famous of all, the one name we always think of when we hear the phrase “women in science”, is the woman who was bestowed the honorable title of “Mother of Modern Physics’’: Marie Curie. Well-known for her ground-breaking work in the field of radioactivity, Marie Curie was the first woman awarded a PhD in research science in Europe, and also the first woman professor at the Sorbonne. She won the Nobel Prize in 1903 for her work in Physics, and in 1911 for her work in Chemistry.

The truth is there are numerous women, whether from the East or the West, who have devoted their lives to science and have found great satisfaction in following a scientific career path. They have been able to achieve great discoveries that contributed to the advancement of science. In the world we live in, science and technology have come a long way and have become an integral part of our daily life. Still, there are many unconquered territories in the fields of science. Following in the footsteps of all these great women scientists, let us be proud to put on our lab coats and forge forward with Bunsen burners held high to light the way to new discoveries.



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The article was first published in print in the PSC Newsletter, 2nd School Semester 2010/2011.

Cover Image by Freepik

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