10 Women Trailblazers in Science
How much do you know about these ten female scientists?
Is there anyone you would add to the list? Let us know in the comments!
1. Mary Anning
Anning was a palaeontologist and a fossil collector. She was born in 1799 in Lyme Regis and had a brother named Joseph. Lyme Regis is in Dorset in the southwest of England. She collected fossils with her father. He taught her to find and clean the fossils. When her father died, Mary sold the fossils she found to help her mother pay off debts.
Some of the fossils Anning discovered included:
- A 5.2 meter-long skeleton of an ichthyosaur. This was the first ichthyosaur ever to be found.
- A Plesiosaurus skeleton that people initially thought was too good to be real.
An interesting fact about Mary Anning
When Anning was alive it was unusual for women to be able to read and write. Even though she found lots of fossils and was an expert in the subject, she was often not credited with her finds. Women were not allowed to be in the Geological Society of London until 1904, this was 57 years after she died!
2. Ada Lovelace
Lovelace was the first computer programmer. She was born in 1815 in London and was the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and Annabella Milbanke. She became interested in Charles Babbage’s machines in 1833. His machines were designed to calculate mathematical tables mechanically, removing the errors that can appear when these calculations are done by humans. Although Babbage’s machines were never built, Lovelace’s notes are an important part of early computer programs.
In 1843 Lovelace wrote detailed notes explaining how the Babbage’s Analytical Engine could be programmed to compute Bernoulli numbers. In her studies, she realised that these machines could do much more than mathematical calculations. This was the start of computer programming!
An interesting fact about Ada Lovelace
She has a computer programming language named after her: Ada.
3. Marie Curie
Marie Curie was a Polish physicist and chemist. She is well known for working with her husband Pierre as they discovered the radioactive elements Polonium and Radium. In 1903 Curie became the first woman to win a Nobel Prize for her involvement in research into radiation. Later in 1911, she became the first person to ever win two Nobel Prizes for her work towards the discovery of Polonium and Radium.
Unfortunately, her work with radioactive substances was damaging to her health. Not much was known about these effects at the time and it is believed she died from the effects of long-term radiation exposure.
An interesting fact about Marie Curie
One of Curie’s daughters, Irène Joliot-Curie, also won a joint Nobel Prize in Chemistry with her husband. They were awarded it for their discovery of artificial radioactivity.
4. Rosalind Franklin
Franklin was an English chemist whose work was essential to understand the complex structure of DNA. DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) is the molecule in all living thing’s cells that contains the genetic code. This genetic code is what makes us look and function the way we do. It can determine things like skin, hair and eye colour as well as other traits which we inherit from our parents.
In her work, Franklin was able to take the first X-ray picture showing that the DNA molecule was shaped like a double helix. This photo was used by other scientists to discover the structure of DNA, without clearly naming her as a contributor!
The work that led to the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1962. Unfortunately, as Nobel prizes were not awarded after a person’s death, Rosalind Franklin was not considered.
An interesting fact about Rosalind Franklin
Franklin has an asteroid named after her! In 1997, an Australian astronomer John Broughton discovered an asteroid and named it ‘9241 Rosfraklin’ in tribute to Franklin.
5. Jane Goodall
Born in London, Dame Jane Goodall is considered to be the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees and is best known for her life-long study of chimpanzees and their social interactions in Tanzania. Through hours and hours of careful watching, sketching and note-taking, Goodall was one of the first to observe a chimpanzee using tools to fish termites from their mounds. She named and grew familiar with the wild chimpanzees she was observing, noting that each chimpanzee had its own unique personality and behaviours; something that was not a common idea at the time. She was also one of the first to observe chimpanzees hunting for meat and gnawing on animal bones, debunking the theory that chimps were herbivores.
Over the years of her observing the same troop of chimps, she was accepted into the group and was able to observe them closely in their day-to-day lives. This is no longer deemed an acceptable practice when observing wild animals.
An interesting fact about Jane Goodall
Instead of numbering the chimpanzees as was the custom at the time, Goodall named the chimps. David Greybeard was one of the first she named. Others included Gigi, Mr McGregor, Goliath, Flo and Frodo who eventually kicked Goodall out of the troop when he became the leader.
6. Mae C. Jemison
Mae Carol Jemison became the first black woman to travel into space in 1992.
Born in the US, Jemison graduated from university with a degree in chemical engineering before earning her medical degree. She travelled around the world working as a doctor and applied to be an astronaut at NASA in 1985.
Jemison was part of the 1992 STS-47 mission during which she orbited the Earth 127 times! She was in space for almost 200 hours during which she conducted experiments on the effects of weightlessness on herself and the crew.
After she returned to Earth she retired from NASA. Since then, she has become a professor and written children's books about her life.
An interesting fact about Mae C. Jemison
Jemison is a HUGE Star Trek fan! Whilst she was in space, she would often open communications by saying "Hailing frequencies open" which is a quote from the show. She even appeared on an episode of Star Trek in 1993, becoming the first real astronaut to appear on the show.
7. Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Maggie Aderin-Pocock was born in Camden in 1968. She is a space scientist and has a passion for sharing and educating both adults and children about space and other areas of science.
Aderin-Pocock previously worked for the ministry of defence before returning to develop a telescope that could analyse starlight. This would help us to understand distant stars. She was also the lead scientist when using satellites to study climate change.
Aderin-Pocock has a passion for educating and inspiring the next generation of scientists, engineers and astronauts. She works closely with schools to provide engaging talks and lessons for children and young people.
She has worked as a science consultant for many different TV shows, co-presents “The Sky at Night” as well as appearing on many children’s TV shows too!
For her work in science education, Aderin-Pocock has been awarded several awards and honours. She was appointed an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in 2009 and was awarded the Institute of Physics Prize for her work in public engagement in 2020.
An interesting fact about Maggie Aderin-Pocock
Aderin-Pocock was diagnosed with dyslexia at age 8. She struggled at school but was passionate about science.
8. Mary Somerville
Somerville was a Scottish scientist who studied mathematics and astronomy. She was jointly admitted to be the first female member of the Royal Astronomical Society alongside Caroline Herschel. Her work focused on the sun’s radiation effects on Earth’s substances and many have agreed that her later works and books lead to the discovery of the planet Neptune.
She was passionate about the need to support women in education and their civil rights. At one point she was Ada Lovelace’s tutor and friend!
An interesting fact about Mary Somerville
She featured on the front of the new Scottish £10 note.
9. Sarah Gilbert
Sarah Gilbert 1962 -
Sarah Gilbert is a British vaccinologist and professor of vaccinology at Oxford University. She specialises in the development of flu vaccines and has been working on new ways to create vaccines for over 10 years. During the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, she co-developed a much-needed vaccine with the Oxford Vaccine Group.
Sarah knew from a young age that she wanted to work in medicine. She worked hard at school and university to gain her doctorate and began working in the field of biotechnology.
An interesting fact about Sarah Gilbert
Gilbert’s colleagues have described some of her working patterns as quite unorthodox. Gilbert would often work from very early in the morning (4 am) to late at night.
10. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Elizabeth Garret Anderson was the first woman in Britain to qualify as a physician and a surgeon. Born in London, Garret was initially taught by her mother, as there was no school nearby. When she was sent to boarding school at age 13, Garrett was upset by the lack of science and mathematics taught at her all-girl boarding school.
It is said that Garrett was inspired by an entry in the English Woman's Journal which talked about the first female doctor in the US: Elisabeth Blackwell. This spurred Garret into meeting with Blackwell and opening the path of medical careers for women and therefore advancing women’s rights.
Through private study, Garrett obtained a certificate in anatomy and physiology. She was admitted to the Society of Apothecaries due to a loophole that meant she couldn't legally be excluded based on her gender. It was a struggle but she finally obtained her licence to practise medicine in 1865.
An interesting fact about Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Although she was licenced, Garrett was not allowed to work in any hospital. So, in late 1865 she opened her own practice in London.