“In the history of science, we have to hunt for the women – not because they weren’t capable of doing research, but because for a large chunk of time they didn’t have the chance.”
– Angela Saini, “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story
The annals of scientific history are marked with the contributions of great men. Very few women come to mind when we think about the greatest scientists of all time. Does this mean that women did not have any significant contributions in the field? Regardless of what our patriarchal society has to say about the matter, the answer is an empathetic no. You will not believe the number of scientific advancements that we have today that are the products of a woman’s innovation and hard work. So, who are these women? Why don’t we know them? The answer is pretty simple. Like in every other field in the world, women had to contend with discrimination and prejudice. Many a time, their discoveries have been credited to men. Nevertheless, they have trudged on and made amazing contributions to mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, genealogy, and astrophysics among many other arenas. Despite this, there still seem to be preconceived notions about women pursuing STEM subjects. Though things have improved a bit, there are still fewer opportunities and less exposure for women of science.
In 2015, The United Nations pledged to promote equal opportunities for females in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. Since then, February 11 is observed as the International Day of Women and Girls in Science.
This International Day of Women and Girls in Science, let us commemorate the achievements of some of the great women of science whose names have been lost in time.
Born in 1862, Agnes Pockels had been interested in science ever since childhood. It was her heart’s desire to study physics. Predictably, she was not given the opportunity to study at any university. This did not stop her. She got her hands on all the information available in scientific literature through her brother who was a student at the University of Göttingen. In addition to looking after her ailing parents, Agnes was also in charge of the household chores in her house in Germany. Agnes’ scientific mind took notice of the effects of oil, soaps, and other household chemicals on the surface tension of water. Soon, she came up with a device that helped her to measure surface tension. She partnered with Lord Rayleigh and published her first research paper entitled Surface Tension in 1891 in the journal Nature. Agnes continued with her research and published many more papers. In 1931, she became the recipient of the Laura Leonard Award. She was also honored with an honorary Ph.D. by the Braunschweig University of Technology.
British Palaentologist, Mary Anning, changed the world’s notion about prehistoric times and the history of Earth through her daring discoveries. Her finds in Jurassic marine fossil beds were revolutionary. She was the first who discovered the skeleton of an ichthyosaur, two plesiosaur skeletons as well as the first pterosaur skeleton outside Germany. She also found a number of fish fossils. Despite her exemplary work, Mary was not permitted to join the Geological Society of London just because she was a woman. She was often not given credit for her own discoveries. It was only in 2010 that the Royal Society recognized her as one of the ten British women who influenced science’s history.
Lise Meitner’s work as a physicist is admirable. Born in 1878 Vienna, Lise had to get private tutoring in physics due to the restrictions on education for women. Later on, she went on to earn her doctorate at the University of Vienna. She dedicated her life to science and discovered numerous isotopes and studied nuclear isomerism as well as beta decay along with her research partner, Otto Hahn. Meitner had to leave behind her ongoing work dealing with the products of neutron bombardment of uranium as she had to flee Austria when Germany annexed it. She encouraged her research partners, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, to conduct further tests. Soon, they came up with barium. Meitner played an important role in the discovery of nuclear fission. Yet, she was overlooked for being a Jewish woman. Otto Hahn received the Nobel Prize for the discovery.
Fun fact: The element, meitnerium, is named after Lise Meitner.
Though Caroline Herschel is not as well-known an astronomer as her brother, William Herschel, her work is quite significant in space study. Caroline left Germany at the age of twenty-two to accompany William in his quest to become a singer in Bath, England. When he left behind his musical aspirations and pursued astronomy, Caroline followed suit. Working as her brother’s assistant, she was the first woman to discover a comet. She went on to find 14 new nebulas and eight comets. Moreover, she added 561 new stars to the Flamsteeds Atlas. Caroline Herschel has a comet, an asteroid, a crater on the Moon, and a space telescope named after her.
Fun fact: Caroline Herschel was employed by King George IIIin 1787 as William Herschel’s assistant in recognition of her work. This made her the first woman to be paid for scientific work. She won the Gold Medal from the Royal Astronomical Society in 1838, making her the first woman to do so.
Edith Emily Dornwell
Edith Emily Dornwell graduated with a first class in physics and physiology from the University of Adelaide in 1885. This not only made her the first woman to graduate from the University of Adelaide but also the first woman to graduate with a science degree in Australia. Dornwell dedicated her life to teaching young minds.
Today, there are a plethora of ladies who are breaking conventions and pursuing STEM subjects. The stereotypical mentality of women being less suited to scientific endeavors has almost faded away. This would not have been feasible if not for the fearless female scientists of yesteryears who had defied everything and carried out their irreplaceable works in science.
Do comment and let me know which of these women inspires you the most.
One thought on “Forgotten Pioneers: Female Scientists to Remember on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science”
My favorite one was Agnes. It comes to prove that even while going full-on Cinderella, our minds can still do wonderful things. I believe it was also a woman who invented wi-fi. Awesome!