There are so many women we could focus on for Women in Science Day, but in this post we’re highlighting ten women who upended life as we know it.
You know the guys who discovered the structure of DNA, Francis, Crick, and Wilkins? Without a Rosalind Franklin, their discovery wouldn’t have been possible.
Franklin was a scientist who perfected X-ray diffraction images, and she was the one who was able to capture the structure of DNA in image form.
Francis, Crick, and Wilkins built on her work and published their findings without giving credit to her, and most of her recognition came after her death. Because of Franklin’s work, medicine and science is changed forever.
Jane Cooke Wright
Jane Cooke Wright grew up as the daughter of a prominent African American doctor and cancer researcher. She followed in his footsteps, becoming a physician in her own right.
By 1967, she was the highest ranking African American woman in hospitals nationwide. She and her father worked together to develop innovative new treatments and techniques for chemotherapy.
Alice Ball was the first African American woman to graduate with a masters degree in chemistry from the University of Hawaii. She went on to be the university’s first woman to teach chemistry there as well.
During her short life (she died at 23), she developed a successful treatment for leprosy. Prior to her findings, leprosy patients in Hawaii were arrested and sent to a separate, isolated location where they eventually died.
With her new treatment, however, leprosy patients could now live full lives with their families. Much like Rosalind Franklin, a colleague took credit for her work after her death, going as far as to name the treatment after himself, until Ball’s mentor stepped in and made sure she got the credit she deserved.
Rita Levi-Montalcini grew up in an artist household where her father originally discouraged her from attending college because he didn’t want education to interfere with her becoming a wife and mother.
Eventually he got on board, and good thing, too because Levi-Montalcini eventually won a Nobel Peace Prize for her work in neurobiology. During WWII, her Jewish heritage forced her to flee Italy for France where she lived under a secret identity and set up a small lab in her bedroom.
Her home lab was successful and after the war, she built on the work she did there to go on and isolate the nerve growth factor associated with cancerous tumors.
Ada Lovelace was the daughter of the famous poet, Lord Byron. While her father’s poetry was revolutionary in many ways, Lovelace’s work has changed technology and the world as we know it.
Lovelace was mentored by and worked with Charles Babbage, the man who built the first computer. Lovelace theorized that Babbage’s device could use codes to complete a series of instructions - a process that computers employ to this day.
She is considered the first computer programmer.
After receiving a BS in physics and a BA in English at Stanford, then going on to receive both a masters and a doctorate in physics, Sally Ride became the first woman in space.
After finishing her education, she applied to become one of NASA’s first female astronauts and beat out 1000 other applicants, eventually taking her first trip to space in 1983.
She went on one more mission to space and was scheduled to go on a third, but that trip was canceled after the Challenger explosion.
She became the Director of the California Space Institute at the University of California in San Diego, and in 2001 started a company that would help girls and young women pursue their interests in science and math.
Nine years after Sally Ride’s trip to space, Mae Jamison became the first African American woman in space. Jamison was a medical doctor and after finishing med school at Cornell, she served with the Peace Corp in Sierra Leone and Liberia.
When she returned home to the US, she decided to pursue her dream of going to space and applied to become an astronaut with NASA in 1985, but the Challenger explosion put all space expeditions at a halt for a while.
In 1987, Jamison reapplied and was accepted as the first African American woman in NASA’s astronaut training program. She went on to become the first African American astronaut in space in 1992, and while there, she studied weightlessness and motion sickness in orbit.
Software development may be a boys club, but did you know there’s actually a “mother of software engineering”?
Margaret Hamilton got a job as a programmer at MIT, just to support her husband for a few years while he was in law school at Harvard.
But she didn’t leave. Instead, she stayed on and eventually became in charge of Apollo’s on-board flight software.
Her work made the first moon landing successful, and perhaps more importantly, she got the astronauts home safely.
Joining the ranks of incredible women who helped us learn more about space is Nancy Roman, the “mother of the Hubble Space Telescope.”
Despite pushback from her educators, she always loved the idea of astronomy and pursued a career in it.
She joined NASA in its beginning days and was in charge of the space astronomy program there. In her role there, she was the one who led the charge for planning, designing, and getting funding for the Hubble Space Telescope.
Today, even in her 90s, she is an advocate for girls in science.
The final woman on our list wasn’t a scientist and likely never finished high school. Instead, she was a young wife and mother who revolutionized modern medicine without even knowing it.
By age 30, Lacks was already a mother of 5 young children, and she was experiencing abdominal pain and spotting. She went to Johns Hopkins, where months earlier she had given birth to her fifth child, and was diagnosed with cervical cancer.
While undergoing treatment, doctors removed tissue during a biopsy that then went to a lab for study. Ethical or not, this was common practice at the time. All other cells in the lab died within a few days. But not the cells of Henrietta Lacks. They continued to reproduce quickly and were used in medical. Researchers developed a strain of cells from the original cells taken from Lacks called the HeLa strain, which was eventually used to develop the polio vaccine.
Henrietta Lacks died not long after her cancer diagnosis at the age of 31, but her cells live on and continue to be used in medical research.
Got any world changers in your life? Give them a shout out here!
"Henrietta Lacks." Biography.com. January 19, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/henrietta-lacks-21366671.
Ball, Alice Augusta (1892-1916) | The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed. Accessed March 15, 2018. http://www.blackpast.org/aaw/ball-alice-augusta-1892-1916.
NASA. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.jsc.nasa.gov/Bios/htmlbios/ride-sk.html.
Butanis, Benjamin. "The Legacy of Henrietta Lacks." Johns Hopkins Medicine, Based in Baltimore, Maryland. April 12, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/henriettalacks/index.html.
"Changing the Face of Medicine | Jane Cooke Wright." U.S. National Library of Medicine. June 03, 2015. https://cfmedicine.nlm.nih.gov/physicians/biography_336.html.
"Mae C. Jemison." Biography.com. January 19, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/mae-c-jemison-9542378.
McMillan, Robert. "Her Code Got Humans on the Moon-And Invented Software Itself." Wired. June 29, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.wired.com/2015/10/margaret-hamilton-nasa-apollo/.
"Rita Levi-Montalcini." Biography.com. April 02, 2014. https://www.biography.com/people/rita-levi-montalcini-9380593.
Roman, Nancy Grace. Https://www.astrosociety.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/ab2013-112.pdf. PDF. Astronomy Beat, June 11, 2013.
"Rosalind Franklin." Biography.com. February 27, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/rosalind-franklin-9301344.
"Sally Ride." Biography.com. February 27, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.biography.com/people/sally-ride-9458284.
VOA. "Mother of Hubble Always Aimed for Stars." VOA. August 15, 2011. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.voanews.com/a/mother-of-hubble-always-aimed-for-stars--127751383/163252.html.