On Christmas day, the Emmy-nominated film, Hidden Figures, was released and is now leading in box-office sales, even overtaking Rogue One. While I have yet to see the film, it has already inspired me, and it moves me that in a time when gender politics are at one of the highest points of tension in our country, we are still praising all of the work of the strong, capable women that came before us. Therefore, I thought we should take the time to recognize some of the other women scientists who have contributed to scientific investigation and made life-changing discoveries throughout history.
1. Rosalind Franklin
Next to Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin is probably one of the most well-known female scientists, and one of the foremost examples of the sexism that ran rampant in such fields in the early 1900s. Franklin was an English chemist who is known for discovering the double-helix molecular structure of DNA through X-ray diffraction. Throughout her studies, she also discovered the structures of various other chemical materials including ribonucleic acid, graphite and several viruses. The discovery led to a deeper understanding of DNA and how it determined specific features of each person’s body. Franklin had been working with three male colleagues who presented her discovery and were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1962. The three men accepted the award without hesitation or any nod toward Franklin’s contribution until after her death, at which time it was too late for her to receive the Nobel Prize. Franklin was a determined, hard-working and passionate woman who applied her practical, analytical brain to things she faced in everyday life, including the ovarian cancer from which she died at 37.
2. Francoise Barré-Sinoussi
Francoise Barré-Sinoussi is a French virologist known for making one of the most important discoveries of modern medicine. Barré-Sinoussi was born in Paris where she joined the Pasteur Institute — a non-profit, private foundation that focuses on studying biology, diseases and vaccines. While continuing her studies at the institute, Barré-Sinnoussi turned her efforts toward retroviruses. This led to her discovery of HIV in 1983, as the main cause of AIDS. She studied various ways that HIV could be contracted between individuals in an effort to control the spread of the disease, which included mother-to-child transmissions and instances where the replication of HIV could be reduced without the use of antiretroviral drugs. In 2008, she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her discovery and continued her work, which included defending her findings that showed condoms could be effective in preventing the transference of HIV — which Pope Benedict XVI had denied. In 2012, she became the President of the International AIDS Society, but will likely retire from that position sometime this year.
3. Mary-Claire King
Mary-Claire King is a powerhouse of a woman. King is a human geneticist and professor at the University of Washington where she continues her studies on the interaction of genetics and environmental influences on human conditions including HIV, lupus, breast and ovarian cancer, according to Wikipedia. After her childhood friend died of cancer, King became interested in the subject, which likely led to her discovering of the chromosome 17 (BRCA1) — the gene responsible for producing breast and ovarian cancers. By her estimations, 5-10 percent of all cases of breast cancer are hereditary, often passed from mother to child. While other diseases have been linked to heredity through genetics, her work was met with skepticism and arguments that many other influences could help to produce breast cancer. Yet she continued to defend her discovery and was confirmed, which allows thousands of women to better plan their futures with the knowledge of the gene. King also applied her work to fight human rights abuses in Argentina where she used mitochondrial DNA and human Leukocyte antigens obtained through dental samples to prove biological relationships between families and children that had been illegally moved and adopted throughout the country. Her processes have been used to identify hundreds of missing children, as well as deceased peoples from a massacre in El Mozote, El Salvador. She is also known for demonstrating that humans and chimpanzees are 99 percent genetically identical; King has worked tirelessly to find genetic links to human conditions and her work has helped so many that it is hard to believe she hasn’t received a Nobel Prize for her work yet.
4. Lise Meitner
While many may blame Meitner in some way for the drama that unfolded during the Cold War, her discovery still holds a important significance in understanding the interactions that occur in nuclear physics. Meitner was an Austrian-Swedish physicist who worked with Otto Hahn and a small group of scientists that first discovered nuclear fission. The group focused their efforts on radioactivity and found that when uranium absorbed an extra neutron, splitting the uranium into two smaller nuclei and releasing an enormous amount of energy — this later became the basis of nuclear weapons and atomic bombs used during World War II and later on. During her life Meitner became the first full professor of physics at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, but her work and position were interrupted when she was forced to flee Nazi occupation due to her Jewish heritage. Meitner is another in a long list of women who have been denied due recognition, as the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded solely to her collaborator Otto Hahn.
5. Irene Joliot-Curie
The prodigal daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie was born in France and was quickly placed with a number of French scholars to study mathematics after she showed great promise at the young age of 10. While her studies were interrupted by World War I, Joliot-Curie returned to work with her mother in the mobile field hospitals where primitive X-ray equipment was being used to locate shrapnel in wounded soldiers. Later, she was dispatched to teach and assist with research with chemical engineer Frédéric Joliot, whom she later married. The two focused their research on atoms and later discovered the process of artificial radioactivity by building off the work of her parents who had isolated naturally occurring radioactive elements. The couple discovered a way of turning one element into another, such as creating phosphorous from aluminum and silicon from magnesium. The discovery allowed radioactive material to be created quickly and plentifully so that it could be used for medical treatments. Joliot-Curie and her husband were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1935. However, as a result of her work, Joliot-Curie suffered several complications from prolonged exposure to radiation, contracting tuberculosis and later leukemia, from which she died at 58.
Who are the women scientists that inspire you the most? How can we increase female representation and respect within various scientific fields? Should young girls be encouraged to pursue scientific interests? Why and how? Let’s talk.