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18 Greatest Female Scientists Of All Time

[Estimated read time: 9 minutes]

The field of science has somehow always been considered as a field of talented men, but the important contributions of female scientists since the antiquity and the middle ages can’t be overlooked. Some of the contributions in the history, even surpassed those of their contemporary male counterparts.

When anyone talks about the greatest female scientist, exactly which name comes to your mind first? Is it Marie Curie and why not, she was the first women to be awarded by the Nobel, not once but twice. But is it really the case where one or just a couple of female scientists dominates and others not.

Actually, there are many women in science, who made important discoveries in the various fields and today we are going to introduce you to some of the world’s best women scientists of all time who changed the world with their minds.

18. Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann JacksonShirley Jackson with former U.S President Barack Obama

Shirley Jackson is an acclaimed American physicist, who became the first female of African heritage to earn a doctorate from the MIT and only the second one to gain a PhD in physics in the entire United States. After completing her research work on subatomic particles in MIT, she landed on Fermi Lab for her first job.

After that, she joined one of the leading scientific research company in the United States, the AT&T Bell Laboratories (now Nokia Bell Labs), where she extensively researched on various materials including two-dimensional condensed matter systems. She is currently president of the prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

17. Esther Lederberg

Esther Lederberg

Esther Lederberg was an American microbiologist, who is known for her contribution in the bacterial genetics. Her most prominent discoveries are Lambda phage virus, transfer of genes between bacteria by specialized transduction and discovery of the bacterial fertility factor F. During her entire scientific career, Lederberg solely authored more than a dozen research papers, while more than 20 or so in collaboration.

16. Émilie du Châtelet

Emilie ChateletImage Courtesy: Maurice Quentin de La Tour 

Émilie du Châtelet was a French polymath in the 18th century, who contributed substantially in the fields of mathematics and physics. Châtelet’s most important contribution is her French translation of Newton’s famous book “Principia“, including her own commentary. Her translated version which is still in use today.

She was also the first to predict infrared radiation in one of her Dissertation published in 1737. Alongside, “Principia” she translated other famous books such as “The Fable of the Bees” and was a huge supporter of women’s education.

15. Caroline Herschel

Caroline HerschelCaroline Herschel

Caroline Herschel was one of earliest German astronomers, who is known for discovering at least five different comets, including Encke’s Comet and 35P/Herschel–Rigollet, both periodic comets with varying orbital periods. She was the sister of William Herschel, the astronomer who discovered planet Uranus.

In 1828, she became the first woman to be the recipient of a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, and years later she was named an Honorary Member of the Royal Astronomical Society. Throughout her astronomical career, Caroline Herschel won many awards and honors, including the Gold medal which she received from the King of Prussia in 1846.

14. Maria Mitchell

Mitchell MariaMitchell Maria

Mitchell was the first professional American woman astronomer, who discovered a comet using a telescope in 1847. This comet is now known as “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” or C/1847 T1. This was the beginning of her astronomy career. In 1868, Mitchell started cataloging Sun spots and by 1873 she was able to take relatively more precise photographs of the Sun.

These were the earliest known periodic images of the Sun, which ultimately allowed her to formulate the hypothesis that sunspots were not clouds but cavities on the Sun’s surface. Nine years after her death, the Maria Mitchell Observatory in Nantucket, Massachusetts is named in her honor.

13. Jane Goodall

Jane GoodallDr. Jane Goodall at the Tournament of Roses Grand Marshal

The famous British ethologist and anthropologist, Jane Goodall is widely considered as the world’s best expert on chimpanzees. At an early age, her father bought a stuffed chimpanzee, which started her love for animals. At the age of 23 years, Goodall’s extravagant affection and curiosity landed her in the African wilderness.

Here she met a prominent Kenyan paleontologist named Louis Leakey. He sent her to Cambridge University to pursue a doctoral degree in ethology in 1958. Here she became the 8th student in the history of the United States to be allowed to pursue PhD without any graduate degree.

Perhaps she is best known for her study of social and family interactions of wild chimpanzees, which lasted over five decades.

12. Rita Levi-Montalcini

Rita Levi-Montalcini was an Italian neurologist and a Nobel laureate, who was known for her discovery of NGF or nerve growth factor along with her colleague Stanley Cohen. From 1966 until her death in 2009, she received more than a dozen awards and honors including the Nobel Prize in 1986. At the age of 92, Rita Montalcini was appointed as a member of the Italian Senate by former Italian president Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

And one more thing, at the time of death, she was the longest living Nobel Prize winner at the age of 103.

11. Emmy Noether

Emmy NoetherEmmy Noether in 1930

Emmy Noether is widely known for her unparalleled contribution in theoretical physics and mathematics. She was born in the German town of Erlangen to a mathematician family in 1882. As we all know, women were largely ignored in the academics during that era and Noether also suffered a great deal of it as she worked year and year without pay and recognition.

In mathematics, she laid the foundation of commutative ring theory and hugely contributed towards the field of abstract algebra. In physics, Noether’s theorem played an important part in shaping modern theoretical physics. Her contributions were even appreciated by the likes of Albert Einstein, Jean Dieudonné and Hermann Weyl and is regarded as one of the most important women in the mathematics.

10. Nettie Stevens

Nettie StevensNettie Stevens

Nettie Maria Stevens was born in America, when there were just a few opportunities available to a woman such as teaching and nursing. Although she did teach in school during her graduation, there was nothing that could stop Stevens from pursuing higher education.

After completing her Master’s from the Stanford in 1900, and PhD from Bryn Mawr College, she began her research career at the age of 39. Nettie came up with XY sex-determination system after analyzing chromosome in insects. She found out that chromosomes in the sperm produced by insect are of two different kinds; one short and one long.

When long chromosomes sperm fertilized an egg, they produced female (offspring), while sperm with small chromosome produced a male. This pattern is observed in humans, other mammals and insects.

9. Irène Joliot-Curie

Irene and Marie Curie 1925Irène and Marie Curie 1925

Born and brought up in France, Irène Joliot-Curie was the eldest daughter of Marie and Pierre Curie. She followed her parents’ footsteps and along with her husband, was awarded the prestigious Nobel Prize for discovering artificial radioactivity in 1935.

After completing her PhD in 1924, Irène Curie began working with her future husband Frédéric Joliot, with whom she conducted various radiochemical research. Then in 1934, they made the groundbreaking discovery of induced radioactivity, where an earlier stable element  become radioactive after being exposed to a specific type of radiation. After they both were awarded the Nobel Prize, the Curies became the first and foremost Nobel Prize winning family in the history.

8. Barbara McClintock

Barbara McClintockImage Courtesy: Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA)

After receiving her doctorate in botany in 1927, Barbara McClintock began her research career focused around the development of maize Cytogenetics at the Cornell University in 1927. She extensively studied the characteristics of chromosomes and how they react during reproduction in maize (corn). In the 1940’s and 1950’s with the help of careful microscopic analysis, she was able to generate several ideas regarding the basic structure of maize.

One such revolutionary idea was the genetic recombination by crossing over or a process where chromosomes exchange the information during meiosis. Her research regarding the genetic structure of maize was largely studied and understood in the early 1970’s. She became a Nobel Laureate in 1983.

7. Gertrude B. Elion

George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion                    George Hitchings and Gertrude Elion in 1988.   Image Courtesy: wellcomecollection.org

Gertrude B. Elion was one of the prominent American biochemist of her time, who received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1988 along with George H. Hitchings and Sir James Black. Working alongside Hitchings and Black, she discovered various important live saving drugs such as AZT (for AIDS) and azathioprine, the first immunosuppressant drug.

Along with the Nobel Prize, Elion was also honored with awards like the National Medal of Science in 1991, the Garvan-Olin Medal in 1968 and Lemelson-MIT Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997.

6. Chien-Shiung Wu

Chien-Shiung WuChien-Shiung Wu at Columbia University

In the world of experimental physics, the Chinese born, Chien-Shing Wu will always remain one of the brightest and charismatic personality. Her most important contribution, the Wu experiment, which established that the conservation of parity is also applied to weak interactions, not just the electromagnetic and strong interactions.

This discovery proved to be a major factor in the development of the Standard Model of particle physics. The success of this experiment resulted her two colleagues Chen-Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee wining the Nobel Prize in 1957 but Wu was excluded from any sort of recognition for her work until 1978.

5. Dorothy Hodkin

hodgkinImage Courtesy: nobelprize.org

Dorothy Hodkin is a noted British scientist, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1964. She began her research career at the Newnham Collage, Cambridge University under John Desmond. Here she explored the potential of X-ray crystallography in determining the structures of proteins while performing an experiment on pepsin.

After successfully receiving the doctorate, she went back to the Oxford University from where she had completed her graduation. Among many of her famous pupil, Hodkin also taught the “Iron Lady” of Britain, Margaret Thatcher during her time in Somerville Collage.

4. Ada Lovelace

Ada LovelaceWatercolor portrait of Ada Lovelace

Are you into programming? Well, if you do, then you would probably know that Augusta Ada Lovelace is the first computer programmer in the history. How she became one you ask? In June 1833, Lovelace met Charles Babbage through their mutual friend Mary Somerville. Later that month Babbage invited her to witness the prototype for his Difference Engine.

It was during that time that she recognized Babbage’s machine had much more capability other than just being a general purpose computer for calculations and constructed the first ever algorithm, which was specifically carried out to be processed by such machines.

3. Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Jocelyn BellJocelyn Bell in 1967

Jocelyn bell Burnell is one of the most acclaimed names in the field of astronomy. After completing her graduation from the University of Glasgow in 1965, she enrolled in the Cambridge University to pursue her PhD. Here she worked under her doctoral supervisor Anthony Hewish. It was during this time as a postgraduate student, she discovered the first ever radio pulsars.

This discovery was a landmark in the field of astrophysics and for which Anthony Hewish along with radio astronomer Martin Ryle was awarded with the Nobel Prize, but Jocelyn Burnell was left out. To this date it remained one of the most controversial decisions in the history of the Nobel Prize.

Read: 15 Scientists That Are Not Rewarded Fairly For Their Contribution

In February 2013, the BBC’s radio magazine program, Women’s Hour ranked Bell as one of the 100 most powerful women in the U.K. The following year, she was elected as the president of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the first women who hold that title in its entire history.

2. Lise Meitner

Lise Mitner

Lise Meitner was a pioneer radio physicist, who is most famously known for discovering nuclear fission. In 1905, Lise Meitner became the second woman to gain a doctoral degree in physics at the University of Vienna. She was also the first woman professor in physics at the University of Berlin. In the year 1938, Meitner along with Otto Hahn discovered nuclear fission of uranium and Thorium.

1. Rosalind Franklin

Rosalind FranklinRosalind Franklin in 1950 Image Courtesy: Vittoria Luzzati/NPG

Rosalind Franklin started her advanced academic career from the University of Cambridge in 1938 after excelling in school and graduation. Here she met and worked under several prominent scientists such as spectroscopist Bill Price and Nobel Laureate Ronald Norrish.

Read: 15 Inspiring Black Inventors Who Changed The World For The Better

Perhaps her greatest contribution towards science was X-ray diffraction images of DNA samples, which later led to the important discovery of DNA double helix. Unfortunately, for her and for science, she never won a Nobel Prize in her lifetime as the three scientists James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins, associated with this discovery were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1962.