Women Who Changed The World Through Science

Recently Donna Strickland became the third woman to win the Nobel prize for Physics. She joins Marie Curie, who won in 1903, and Maria Goeppert-Mayer, who was awarded the prize in 1963. Here are some other women who have (or should have) earned notoriety for their contributions to science.

Caroline Herschel- (1750 – 1848)
A brilliant astronomer, discovering new nebulae and star clusters. She was the first woman to discover a comet and discovered a total of eight during her career. Caroline continued her astronomical work well into her “retirement”, compiling a massive catalog of nebula and star groups. Her work combined with the work of her brother increased the number of known star clusters from about 100 to over 2,500. When she died at age 97 she had amassed a variety of honors, including a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.

Hertha Ayrton- (1854-1923)
Hertha was a British physicist. She attended Girton College at Cambridge University, where she studied mathematics but was not eligible for a degree because she was a woman. She later attended classes in physics at Finsbury Technical College given by Professor William Ayrton, whom she later married. She assisted him with a variety of experiments in physics and electricity, becoming an expert in her own right on the subject of the electric arc – an electrical breakdown of gas. She published several papers from her own research and as a result was elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In 1902, she was the first woman nominated to become a fellow of the Royal Society (although women could not be elected at the time).

Lise Meitner- (1878-1968)
In 1906 Meitner earned her doctorate from the University of Vienna where she earned top marks in math and physics. Meitner then made her way to Berlin where she worked alongside Otto Hahn on the study of radioactive elements. She was forced to flee Nazi Germany in 1938 but continued her work in Sweden. She calculated the energy released in the phenomenon of “nuclear fission.” It was this discovery that eventually led to the development of the atomic bomb and won Hahn the Nobel Prize in 1944. Meitner was overlooked by the Nobel committee but continued her atomic research in Stockholm into her 80s.

Gerty Cori- (1896-1957)
Born in what is now Prague, Cori earned her doctorate in medicine from Charles-Ferdinand University in 1920. She and her husband Carl moved to the US in 1922. They both worked at the State Institute for the Study of Malignant Diseases in Buffalo, New York, and co-authored more than 50 research papers during their time there. In 1931, Carl was awarded a professorship at Washington University in St Louis, Missouri. Gerty moved with him and took a position as a research assistant, where she worked for 12 years before being hired as an assistant professor. In 1946 she was given a full professorship, and a year later the couple shared the Nobel prize for physiology or medicine. She was the first woman to win a Nobel in that category.

Irène Curie-Joliot- (1897–1956)
In 1934, Irène and her husband Frédéric Joliot documented artificial radioactivity. They jointly received the Nobel Prize in chemistry the next year, making Marie and Irène the first parent and child to have independently won Nobels. Irène died of leukemia in 1956.


Dorothy Hodgkin- (1910-1994)
Born Dorothy Crowfoot in Cairo, Egypt. She enrolled in one of Oxford’s women’s colleges at the age of 18 and studied chemistry before moving to Cambridge. She returned to Oxford in 1934, where she would spend most of her career teaching chemistry and using X-ray crystallography to study the three-dimensional structures of biological molecules such as penicillin and insulin. She spent years perfecting the technique and was awarded a Nobel Prize for it in 1964.

Rosalind Franklin- (1920 – 1958)
Rosalind Franklin received her doctorate in physical chemistry from Cambridge University. James Watson and Francis Crick received the credit (and Nobel Prize in 1962) for determining the structure of DNA, but their discovery relied heavily on the uncredited work of Rosalind Franklin while she was performing X-ray Crystallography studies on DNA molecules in a laboratory at King’s College in London.

Vera Rubin- (1928-2016)
Her work confirmed the existence of a type of invisible matter known as dark matter. In 1974, she helped provide evidence that the stars at the edges of galaxies move faster than expected. This led to the determination that there was a form of matter we cannot see, now commonly called dark matter. Her studies earned her numerous awards and honors, including being the second female astronomer to be elected to the US National Academy of Sciences.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell- Born 1943
As a research student at Cambridge University’s Cavendish laboratory, she helped to build a new radio telescope. One day in 1967 when looking at data from that telescope she spotted a faint and unusual signal that consisted of repeating pulses of radio waves. Her observation (made together with her supervisor, Antony Hewish) is considered by many to be one of the greatest astronomical discoveries of the 20th Century. Hewish received the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics for his “decisive role in the discovery of pulsars”, but she was not credited or included in the citation.

Fabiola Gianotti- Born 1960
The 16th person to lead the European Organization for Nuclear Research, more commonly known as CERN. CERN is home to the world’s largest particle physics laboratory carries out research to improve our understanding of the Universe. She joined Cern in 1994, where she worked on the Atlas experiment, which pinpointed the sub-atomic particle known as the Higgs, which gives mass to the atom. She now leads the organization, which is home to 10,000 scientists from more than 100 nationalities.

A complete list of female winners of Nobel Science Awards

1903 Marie Sklodowska Curie
1963 Maria Goeppert Mayer
2018 Donna Strickland

1911 Marie Sklodowska Curie
1935 Irene Joliot-Curie
1964 Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin
2009 Ada E. Yonath
2018 Frances H. Arnold

Physiology & Medicine:
1947 Gerty Radnitz Cori
1977 Rosalyn Sussman Yalow
1983 Barbara McClintock
1986 Rita Levi-Montalcini
1988 Gertrude Elion
1995 Christiane Nusslein-Volhard
2004 Linda B. Buck
2008 Francoise Barre-Sinoussi
2009 Elizabeth H. Blackburn
2009 Carol W. Greider
2014 May-Britt Moser
2015 Youyou Tu

Bradley Pierce

This geek is the co-creator of and producer for ZFO Entertainment, a writer for ZFOnline, and also a filmmaker and was the original voice of Chip in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, and actor from Jumanji, and The Borrowers.

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