The female contribution to the advancement of science and medicine is often overlooked, but the
Grolier Clubcelebrated the role of women in science with its exhibit “Extraordinary Women in Science & Medicine: Four Centuries of Achievement.”
Starting with women born in the mid 1500s, the 32 women celebrated in this exhibit were not only pioneers in their fields, many were women’s rights activists and worked to encourage other women to enter the science and medical fields.
We’ve picked out 21 of the women to highlight here.
The exhibit celebrated these women’s contributions to science while revealing how many challenges they faced as women in a field dominated by men. Many faced lack of education opportunities, pressure from their parents and society, and many were not given the same recognition for their achievements as their male counterparts.
The exhibit only ran through Nov. 23, but you can check out the book that includes all the information. The Grolier Club is an organisation that collects books and prints written throughout history, so we got to see the published papers, lab notebooks, dissertations, and lab equipment of these women up close.
Louise Bourgeois Boursier worked to eliminate the pain, fear, and high mortality rates of child birth in the 16th century. Boursier wrote a step-by-step guide to pregnancy, including prenatal care through childbirth. She was present at many royal family births because of her expertise, and she kept a record of her experiences at these births in a book that we got to see up close at the exhibit.
Maria Cunitz simplified the process behind calculating the positions of planets. Cunitz published a book that completely reworked the famous Kepler method for figuring out where planets are. His Rudolphine Tables were complicated, but Cunitz figured out a way to significantly simplify the maths. The Grolier Club calls her the most advanced mathematical astronomer of the time period.
Laura Bassi was the first woman offered an official teaching position at a European university. Bassi taught Newtonian physics and wrote almost 30 papers on physics and hydraulics. She was the only woman appointed to Pope Benedict XIV's elite group of 25 scholars. At the exhibit we got to see the bronze and silver medals she was awarded for earning her Ph.D.
Maria Gaetana Agnesi wrote a comprehensive introduction to algebra, geometry, differential equations, and calculus. Agnesi liked the simplicity and black-and-white nature of maths. She was the first woman given the title of professor at a European university.
Field: Mathematics and Physics
Marie Sophie Germain was one of the pioneers of the elasticity theory. Germain faced opposition from both her parents and society and was unable to pursue a career in mathematics. However, she pursued the subject on her own and corresponded regularly with other mathematicians like Lagrange and Gauss. Gauss had no idea he was corresponding with a woman until many years later.
Florence Nightingale was the founder of modern nursing and recognised the importance of statistical evidence in health care. Nightingale is responsible for making nursing its own health care profession. She developed several data-gathering tools and designed ways to analyse and present that data.
Mary Jacobi was the first American to apply the scientific method to the field of medicine in America. A common assumption during her day was that menstruation affected women's intelligence. Jacobi proved this wrong through observation and measurement.
Sophie Kowalevski was the first woman in Europe to earn a doctorate degree in mathematics. Kowalevski had to move away from Russia where she was born because women were not allowed to study mathematics there. Much of her work included contributions to differential equations and mechanics.
Field: Electrical engineering
Hertha Ayrton's research led to improved lighting systems in the 19th century and she was an active suffragette. Ayrton even refused to participate in the England and Wales 1910 census. We got to see her blank census card at the Grolier Club with this message scrawled across it:
'How can I answer all these questions if I have not the intelligence to vote between two candidates for parliament? I will not supply these particulars until I have my rights as a citizen. Votes for women.'
Field: Physics and Chemistry
Marie Curie was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize, and the only woman to ever win two. Curie first developed the technique to isolate radioactive isotopes, and discovered the elements Polonium and Radium. During World War I she raised funds to equip vans with x-ray machines to help diagnose wounded French soldiers.
When Curie visited America she was excited to discover the existence of women's colleges. The Grolier Club has a photograph of the prestigious 'Institut International De Physique Solvay' physics conference from 1921 and she is the only female in the picture.
Florence Sabin's model of the medulla and midbrain are still the standard used today. In addition to her anatomical models of the brain, Sabin discovered the monocyte -- a cell that helps ramp up the body's reaction to an infection.
Lise Meitner played a critical role in the discovery of nuclear fission, but only her male partner received a Nobel Prize. Otta Hahn actually performed the first experiments of nuclear fission, but he was baffled by his results. Meitner is the one who explained Hahn's results and actually articulated that an atom could be split into smaller parts. But Hahn alone received the Nobel Prize.
Meitner later refused an invitation to work on the Manhattan Project because she was disgusted by the idea of a nuclear bomb.
Field: Mathematics and Physics
Amalie Emmy Noether founded the mathematical branch of modern algebra. Noether also helped prove that conservation laws in physics are because of the symmetries that exist between space and time. Prior to her work these laws were just assumed to be true.
Gerty Cori was the first American woman to win a Nobel Prize. Cori was the first to discover the way cells metabolize starches into energy. She was awarded the Nobel Prize and the metabolism cycle was named after her -- the Cori cycle.
Helen Taussig was the leading pediatric cardiologist of the 20th century. Taussig wrote what is still considered the most comprehensive book on pediatric cardiology. She even invented the operation that solved the fatal problem of infant anoxia -- when the flow of oxygen is cut off right after birth and the baby dies.
Barbara McClintock made the paradigm-shifting discovery that genes actually move. McClintock discovered that genes recombine when a cell divides during meiosis. Her discovery explained how offspring can have different traits from their parents because the genes mix around and combine in new patterns.
Field: Computer Science
Grace Hopper developed the first compiler that could translate computer language. Everyone used to believe that computers could only do arithmetic, but Hopper proved them wrong. We got to see the manual for the first large-scale automatic calculator that Hopper wrote herself.
Chien-Shiung Wu worked with beta decay and created a whole series of presentations encouraging women's participation in science. Wu's work actually yielded a new conservation law: The Law of Conservation of Parity. Chen Ning Yang and Tsung Dao Lee proposed the idea, but Wu actually carried out the experiments. Yang and Lee alone received the Nobel Prize for the work.
We got a chance to see the book full of presentations Wu wrote encouraging women to pursue science.
Gertrude Elion developed the first drug that could be used to fight cancer. Elion's drug was designed to treat childhood leukemia. She also developed the first drugs to allow for organ transplantation.
Rosalind Franklin was the first to develop a way to see x-ray images of DNA. Franklin's x-ray diffraction technique allowed Watson and Crick to discover the double helix shape of DNA. Her image was shown to Watson without her permission, and the image is actually what confirmed Watson and Crick's hypothesis. Franklin died of cancer before the Nobel Prize was awarded.
Rosalyn Yalow developed a way to identify what someone is allergic to. Yallow developed the technique of radioimmunoassay -- it measures the level of antigens in the body and has tons of practical applications like screening the blood of donors to make sure it is disease-free, detecting the presence of cancer in the bloodstream, identifying allergies, and identifying when hormone levels are off balance.
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