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Women in Science throughout History

Women in Science go back a long way. There are some who see in  Merit Ptah, the first woman scientist. She flourished c. 2700 BCE,  shortly after Imhotep, the first human being honored for his intellectual achievement, and is said to have been a physician. However, if not the first, then one of the earliest known women in science would have to be En Hedu' Anna, who lived in Babylon around 2350 BCE and was the chief priestess of the Moon Goddess of the city of Babylon and thus was involved in astronomy and mathematics to fulfill her duty of organizing the calendar. She also wrote poems.Late 4th century BCE in Athens, physician Agnodice was put on trial for pretending to be a man to practice medicine, which was formally illegal. Her women patients saved her and had the law repealed! Eight-hundred years later, in early 5th century CE, Hypatia of Alexandria, the first notable woman in mathematics, was recognized head of the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy in Alexandria. She was brutally hacked to pieces for her scientific views without even a trial. However, in the Middle Ages, the Church supported some nuns doing research, which is what enabled Hildegard of Bingen to achieve what she did.
Italy supported women academics more than other parts of Europe, thus we have a proud tradition from Tortula in 11th century Salerno, to Maria Agnesi and Laura Bassiin the 18th century. 14th century France—almost a replay of the case of Agnocide, 1800 years later, Jacoba Felicie was tried for impersonating a physician to practice medicine. Émilie du Châtelet , the love of Voltaire's life, was an accomplished scientist who organized at her chateau at Cirrey a veritable think tank. Even then, society frowned upon her activities.
Even when the law was not prohibiting them from practicing science and medicine, women were still expected to attend to their female societal roles. They are still expected to raise the family as they do their science. Some have done it magnificently. Witness
Laura Bassi, in 18th century Italy, Europe's first woman Physics professor who also raised eight children. Witness Marie Curie, first woman professor at the Sorbonne and the first female Nobel Laureate, widowed mother who wins a second Nobel Prize for herself and brings up her daughter Irène to become a scientist who also wins a Nobel Prize!
Furthermore, women suffer from many barriers to access throughout their careers in science.  First and foremost, there is a universal discrimination against the girl child in many parts of the developing world, with enrolment and graduation rates lagging boys. Then subtle and not so subtle societal pressures operate to reduce their attendance at science and mathematics courses in higher education facilities. Consider the enormous difficulties faced by the women who wanted to make a career in science in the 19th century and well into the 20th century. It is interesting to remember that
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was the first woman to earn an MD degree; she had 29 rejections from colleges until, as a joke, the Geneva NY College accepted her.Moreover, recognition was denied to many women of distinction. Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), daughter of Byron, explained the Babbage computer in a series of remarkable notes that for 30 years had to be signed only AAL because it was inappropriate for a "decent" woman of her rank in society to publish scientific material; while the men could gain fame and honor for so publishing. That attitude carried into the 20th century, and Arthur Wallace Calhoun could still state, in 1918, that "A woman's name should appear in print but twice—when she marries and when she dies."
These are but a few of the many eminent women whose names have been beacons of learning and achievement through the centuries.

  • Chronology

Merit Ptah (c. 2700 BCE), was possibly the first physician in the world and the first woman in science to be known by name. Her son, who was a High Priest, described her as "the Chief Physician". The IAU named the impact crater Merit Ptah on Venus after her.
En Hedu' anna (c. 2354 BCE), Priestess of the Moon Goddess, is the first female recorded in technical history. Her name means "ornament of heaven". We do have translations of 42 of her poems, the most famous Exultation of Inanna. To put her into perspective, modern astronomy and mathematics began there, with the priests and priestesses in Sumeria and Babylon. They established a network of observatories to monitor the movements of the stars. The calendar they created is still used to date for certain religious events like Easter and Passover.
Agnodice (late 4th century BCE), in Greek legend was a virgin of Athens who disguised herself as a man in order to learn medicine from Herophilos. She learned to be a midwife from Herophilos and began to practice as such. She always revealed her femininity to her patients, but never otherwise, and as a consequence she became immensely popular. She was so popular that male physicians put out of work by her practice accused her of corruption to the Areopagus. In court, she revealed her sex, and a law was made to allow all free-born women to learn midwifery.
Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415), was an ancient philosopher, who taught in the fields of mathematics, astronomy and astrology. She lived in Alexandria in Hellenistic Egypt during the suppression of the pagan cults by the Roman Empire. The daughter of Theon, Hypatia became the recognized head of the Neoplatonist School of Philosophy in Alexandria. After the accession of Cyril to the patriarchate of Alexandria in 412, Hypatia was barbarously murdered by the Nitrian monks and a fanatical mob of Cyril's Christian followers, supposedly because of her intimacy with Orestes, the city's pagan prefect. Following her death, many scholars departed marking the beginning of the decline of Alexandria as a major center of ancient learning.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), was a remarkable woman, a "first" in many fields. At a time when a few women wrote, Hildegard, known as "Sybil of the Rhine", produced major works of theology and visionary writings. When few women were accorded respect, she was consulted by and advised bishops, popes, and kings. She used the curative powers of natural objects for healing, and wrote treatises about natural history and medicinal uses of plants, animals, trees and stones. She is the first composer whose biography is known. She founded a vibrant convent, where her musical plays were performed. Although not yet canonized, Hildegard has been beatified, and is frequently referred to as St. Hildegarde.

Tortula (11th century CE), lived in Salerno, Italy and was a famous obstetrician/gynecologist, about which she wrote several books that were still consulted hundreds of years later. She is best known for teaching male doctors about the female body and childbirth and how to overcome them.

Jacoba Felicie (13th century CE), was a French midwife who was brought to trial for practicing medicine without license in a time when women were not allowed to. Six witnesses affirmed that Jacoba had cured them, even after numerous doctors had given up, and one patient declared that she was wiser in the art of surgery and medicine than any master physician or surgeon in Paris. However, these testimonials were used against her, for the charge was not that she was incompetent, but the—as a woman—she dared to cure at all.

Émilie du Châtelet (1706-49), was a French mathematician, physicist and author. She translated into French, with her own commentary, Newton's celebrate Principia Mathematica and derived from its principles of mechanics the notion of conservation of energy. She researched the science of fire, publishing a paper that foresaw what is today known as infra-red radiation and the nature of light.

Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711-78), was the first woman to officially teach at a college in Europe. In 1732, she was appointed professor of anatomy at the University of Bologna at the age of 21 and two years later was given the chair of philosophy. In 1738, she married Giuseppe Veratti, a fellow academic and had eight children. She was mainly interested in Newtonian physics and taught courses on the subject for 28 years. She was one of the key figures in introducing Newton's ideas of physics and natural philosophy to Italy. In her lifetime, she published 28 papers, the vast majority of these on physics and hydraulics, but she wrote no books. In 1745, Lambertini, Pope Benedict XIV, established an elite group of 25 scholars, Bassi pressed hard to be appointed this group and he appointed her to the final position, the only woman in the group. In 1776, at the age of 65, she was appointed to the chair in experimental physics by the Institute of Sciences.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-99), was an Italian linguist, mathematician, and philosopher. Agnesi is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus. Maria could speak both French and Italian at the age of 5. By age 13, she had acquired Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, Latin. At age 9, she composed and delivered, in Latin, women's right to be educated, an hour-long speech to an academic gathering. At age 15, her father Pietro, a mathematics professor, regularly gathered a circle of the most learned men in Bologna, before whom she read and maintained a series of theses on the most abstruse philosophical questions. By age 20, it is said she had a strong desire to enter a convent. Her wish was not granted and she lived from that time on in an almost conventual semi-retirement, avoiding all interactions with society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics.

Ada Byron (1815-52), Lady Lovelace, was one of the most picturesque characters in computer history. Augusta Ada Byron was born in 1815, and due to her parents separation, she was brought up by her mother, Lady Byron, to be a mathematician and scientist. Lady Byron was terrified that Ada might end up being a poet like her father, but despite her programming, Ada did not sublimate her poetical inclinations; her understanding of mathematics was laced with imagination, and described in metaphors.
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910), is well known worldwide as the first woman to receive her degree as a Doctor of Medicine. She represents a historic moment in modern medicine and women's liberation. Several years after her family immigrated to the United States, she studied privately with independent physicians, an education that culminated at Geneva Medical College in Upstate New York.

Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867-1934), physicist and radiochemist, two-time Nobel Laureate: 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics, and 1911 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. She was a Polish-French chemist, and pioneer in the early field of radiology. She also became the first woman appointed to teach at the Sorbonne. She was born in Warsaw, and spent her early years there, but in 1891 at age 24, moved to France to study science in Paris. She obtained all her degrees and conducted her scientific career there, and became a naturalized French citizen. She founded the Curie Institutes in Paris and in Warsaw.

Irène Joliot-Curie (1897-1956), radiochemist, 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, born in Paris, France. She is daughter of the first female Nobel Laureate Marie Curie. She studied at the Faculty of Science, Sorbonne, but her education was interrupted by World War I, during which she served as a nurse radiographer. After the War, she earned her doctorate in science on the alpha rays of plolonium. In 1926, she married Frédéric Joliot and collaborated with him on studying atoms. They shared the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In 1938, her research on the action of neutrons on the heavy elements was an important step in the discovery of nuclear fission. She became Professor in the Faculty of Science in Paris, and in 1946 the Director of the Radium Institute. A peace activist, she took a keen interest in women's rights, becoming a member of the Comité National de l'Union des Femmes Françaises and of the World Peace Council. She was the Chair of Nuclear Physics at the Sorbonne, and, in 1936, the Government of France appointed her Undersecretary of State for Scientific Research; ultimately she was named an Officer of the Legion of Honor. Irène passed away in Paris from leukemia contracted in the course of her work.

Maria Goeppert Mayer (1906-1972), mathematical physicist, 1963 Nobel Prize in Physics, was born in Silesia. She obtained her education in Goettingen. In the 1920s, Goettingen was perhaps the most active place in developing the ideas of modern quantum mechanics and applying them to atoms. She wrote her PhD thesis on the decay of excited states by the simultaneous emission of two quanta. In Goettingen, she met Joe Mayer, a theoretical chemist from the United States on a fellowship and they were married shortly, and moved to the United States. They worked at Johns Hopkins University, and wrote a textbook on Statistical Mechanics, which became widely used. Following World War II, she joined her husband at the University of Chicago, and there she made her famous discoveries on the Nuclear Shell Model. Her contribution to the Nuclear Shell Model can be roughly divided into three parts:

  1. Discovery of the Magic Numbers (a configuration of a magic number of neutrons or protons; and are in all kinds of nuclear processes. They are: 2, 8, 20, 28, 50, 82, 126);
  2. Explanation of the Magic Numbers for which she shared the 1963 Nobel Prize with Hans Jensen; and
  3. Nuclear pairing.

Rosalyn Sussman Yalow (1921-), American medical physicist, 1977 co-winner Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She graduated in 1941 from Hunter College, where she developed an interest in physics. Soon after graduation, she received an offer for a teaching assistantship in Physics from the University of Illinois. She was the only woman, and the first since 1917, among the department's 400 members. She received her PhD in 1945. Following graduation, she joined the Bronx Veterans Administration Hospital to help set up its radioisotope service. There, she collaborated with Solomon Berson to develop RIA, a radioisotope tracing technique that allows the measurement of tiny quantities of various biological substances in the blood. Despite its huge commercial potential, Rosalyn Yalow and Solomon Berson refused to patent the method. In 1976, Rosalyn became the first female recipient of the Albert Lasker Award for Basic Medical Research. The following year, she received the Nobel Prize, together with Roger Guillemin and Andrew V.

Barbara McClintock (1902-92), geneticist, 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She was born in Hartford, CT, and obtained her undergraduate and doctoral degrees at Cornell University's College of Agriculture. She was supported by a fellowship from the National Research Council (1931-33); 1941 until her death, she worked at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York. In 1944, became the third woman elected to the Academy. In the 1940s and 1950s, McClintock's work on the cytogenetics of maize led her to theorize that genes are transposable, they can move around, on and between chromosomes. She drew this interference by observing changing patterns of coloration in maize kernels over generations of controlled crosses. The idea that genes could move did not seem to fit with what was then known about genes, but improved molecular techniques of the late 1970s and early 1980s allowed other scientists to confirm her discovery, and consequently she was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. She was the first American woman to win an unshared Nobel. Among the many honors awarded, in 1970, the National Medal of Science, the US Government's highest science award.

Rita Levi-Montalcini (1909-),neuroembryologist, 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, Italian-American neurologist, born in Turin, Italy. A dual citizen of Italy and the United States, Levi-Montalcini did her most important work at Washington University with Stanley Cohen. The pair isolated a nerve-growth factor, the first many cell-growth factors found in animals. For this discovery Levi-Montalcini and Stanley Cohen were awarded the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

Linda B. Buck (1947-), American biologist, 2004 co-winner Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Buck and Nobel co-winner Richard Axel cloned olfactory receptors, showing that they belong to the family of G protein-coupled receptors. By analyzing rat DNA, they estimated that there were approximately 1000 different genes for olfactory receptors in the mammalian genome. This research mechanisms of olfaction. Buck obtained her BSc in Psychology and Microbiology (1975), and her PhD in Immunology (1980). Her primary research interest is on how pheromones and odors are detected in the nose and interpreted in the brain. She is also studying the mechanisms underlying aging and the lifespan of C. elegans.