Great scientists, great women – Pt. 1

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The first of a new series celebrating individual women and their contributions to science, mathematics, medicine and engineering.

(clockwise from centre)

Marie Skłodowska Curie
Born: 1867 in Warsaw, Poland.
Died: 1934 in Passy, France.
Fields: chemistry, physics
Impact: The matriarch. One of only four people to win two Nobel prizes, and the only one of the four to do so in two different scientific disciplines (1903 Physics, 1911 Chemistry). First woman to win a Nobel prize, first woman to reach rank of professor at the University of Paris, founder of the Curie Institute, and contributor to the scientific activities of the League of Nations.
Research: Discovered radium and polonium, coined the term “radioactivity”, noted the potential of radiotherapy as a cancer treatment. Her work on radioactivity opened the door to successors to use that same activity to probe atomic structure and ultimately determine the composition of atoms.

Mary Anning
Born: 1799 in Dorset, Great Britain
Died: 1847 in Dorset, UK
Fields: paleontology, geology
Impact: Discovered the first complete plesiosaurus fossil, the first complete icthyosaurus fossil, the first pterosaur fossil found outside Germany, amongst others. Instrumental in elucidation of coprolites being fossilised faeces. Had a critical impact on the recognition of the extinction of species.  
Research: Professional fossil-hunter, scouring the Blue Lias cliffs at Lyme Regis where she spent her whole life. Rather exploited by the scientific establishment at the time, who were happy to discuss matters with her but never credited her in subsequent publications. 

Rosalind Franklin
Born: 1920 in London, UK
Died: 1958 in London, UK
Fields: chemistry, structural biology (X-ray crystallography)
Impact: Produced the X-ray diffraction images of DNA that led to the elucidation of its structure. Key contributions to the structural biology of viruses and RNA.
Research: Trained as a chemist, and learned crystallography in Paris. Played a central role in the discovery of the structure of DNA, though largely uncredited in her lifetime.

Barbara McClintock
Born: 1902 in Hartford, USA
Died: 1992 in Huntington, USA
Fields: genetics, plant science
Impact: Discovered transposable elements, described crossing-over by homologous chromosomes during meiosis, and made key contributions to the understanding of the control of gene expression. Produced the first genetic map for maize. First woman to win an unshared Physiology or Medicine Nobel.
Research: Spent almost her whole career studying the chromosomes of maize, but also pioneered study of the life cycle of the ascomycete fungus Neurospora crassa. Major contributions to understanding the evolution of maize.

Emmy Noether
Born: 1882 in Erlangen, German Empire
Died:  1935 in Bryn Mawr, USA
Field: mathematics
Impact: Widely acknowledged as one of the most important mathematicians of the 20th century, a leading contributor to the research of her day whose work continues to have an impact even now.
Research: Principally in abstract algebra, although her eponymous “Noether’s theorem” is recognised as catalysing the maturation of contemporary physics.


Do you have any recommendations for future instalments? Let us know.



2 thoughts on “Great scientists, great women – Pt. 1

  1. Dorothy Hodgkin (I know, its rather obvious), one of the rare XX nullo-Y Nobelists out there, and she won the Nobel single-handedly, which is also rarer and rarer these days. Besides, I know her nephew, Jonathan Hodgkin, from my days working on Sex Determination in C. elegans. Actually, I gave a bunch of lectures in a Biology Course at the University of Toronto, and one lecture dealt with three members of this interesting family: 1. The Hodgkin of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma’s fame; 2. Sir Alan Hodgkin, FRS, who discovered the action potential, and 3. Dorothy, who was Alan’s sister-in-law, no, maybe it was cousin-in-law. This was over 10 years ago, and my memory is not what it used to be. Jonathan (whom a very small select group of us refer to as The Wormlord) is Alan’s son. Okay, let’s focus back on women. I love your list above, superb. After joining Biology StackExchange (as myself), I subsequently created a ghost account named RosieF (in homage to Rosalind Franklin–not clear to me if the average user gets this identity theft).


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