21 Influential Females Every Science Student Should Know

History lessons in science oftentimes emphasize masculine accomplishments, owing to the fact that most opportunities were open exclusively — or at least predominantly — to men. Though still an industry dominated by the omnipresent Y chromosome, more and more efforts are constantly under way celebrating the women who bravely set out to revolutionize the sciences. Their findings, writings, discoveries and developments shape humanity just as much as their male peers, and deserve appropriate accolades in kind. Far, far more than 20 amazing ladies left their mark on everything from medicine to physics. Exclusion does not mean to downplay them, and nobody should take offense to any included or left out. Consider this merely a brief review of notable names, then embark on a journey to discover even more amazing female scientists. Whether pursuing a degree in Science at a university in Indiana or just studying the subject for recreational purposes, knowing about these women’s contributions can greatly expand your understanding of the history of science.

  1. Marie Curie: Probably one of the most recognized and celebrated women in all the sciences, Marie Curie headed up the physics department at the Sorbonne, discovered polonium and radium, won two Nobel Prizes (the first person to do so) and proved instrumental in understanding how radiation works. Among myriad other startling accomplishments, of course. Today, she still receives considerable accolades and recognition for completely revolutionizing physics and chemistry.
  2. Jane Goodall: Jane Goodall, the renowned primatologist, completely changed the way humanity looks at its closest relatives — chimpanzees. For over 30 years, she ensconced herself in their culture, absorbing everything they could possibly share about themselves and (of course) humanity. Goodall now works as an avid conservationist in Tanzania, discovering ways people and animals can cooperate in a mutually beneficial, sustainable manner.
  3. Mae Jemison: The absolutely amazing Mae Jemison is largely known as the first African-American woman to fly into space, but her stunning accomplishments don’t end there. A dancer and educator as well as a scientist, she actively pushes for both to be taught in tandem rather than as separate spheres of influence. Though native to Alabama, Jemison also practices medicine with the Peace Corps in West Africa, and currently applies her expertise to providing developing nations with viable healthcare technologies.
  4. Margarethe Lenore Selenka: At a time when opportunities for women remained few and far between, this fierce 19th Century feminist, professor and peace activist defied convention and worked in the sciences. Margarethe Lenore Selenka, along with her husband Emil, co-led a Javanese expedition searching for more anthropological information about Homo erectus – and she kept it running after his 1902 passing. Though they dredged up little to nothing about one of humanity’s ancestors, she and her crew did manage to shed some light on both the area’s geology and some of the Pleistoscene mammals unearthed.
  5. Elena Cornaro Piscopia: In 1678, Venetian aristocrat Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the very first woman to ever earn a university degree — and a PhD at that! She excelled at languages, theology, music and philosophy, but attained the most notoriety as a particularly adroit mathematician. At one point, she served as a lecturer at her alma mater, University of Padua, and eventually ditched the academic to serve the poor.
  6. Rachel Carson: Silent Spring remains a classic of scientific writing, especially for those concerning themselves about environmental issues. It explored the horrifying ways in which chemical companies wreaked havoc on local ecosystems, understandably raising a right fair amount of controversy. Pennsylvania native Rachael Carson published plenty more works addressing serious conservation concerns, of course, drawing from her zoological education, fishery work and stint with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services to paint a compelling portrait of nature in peril.
  7. Wangari Maathai: Known mostly for her HIV/AIDS activism, environmental efforts and political stint, Wangari Maathai was the very first woman from Central and East Africa to both earn a doctorate and win the Nobel Prize. This controversial figure, owing largely to a misattributed quote regarding the origins of HIV/AIDS, established the Green Belt Movement with the hopes of promoting green initiatives and women’s rights throughout her native Kenya. She also co-founded the Mazingira Green Party of Kenya, which runs on a largely pro-environment platform.
  8. Elizabeth Blackwell: Female medical doctors in the United States have this extraordinary woman to thank for shattering that particular glass ceiling. As the first lady to obtain a medical degree and build a career upon it, she used her prodigious talents to co-found the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women in 1857, coordinating with her sister Emily and Dr. Marie Zakrzewska. She would later go on to open up the Women’s Medical College (along with Florence Nightingale) and London School of Medicine for Women (along with a slew of others), changing the shape of healthcare forever.
  9. Maria Goeppert-Mayer: Maria Goeppert-Mayer holds the honor of being the second woman to ever earn the Nobel Prize in physics, lauded for her role in proposing the nuclear shell model. Her later work with optical opacity proved instrumental in developing atomic weaponry. The American Physical Society honors her rich legacy with a yearly award distributed to the notable young women shaping the industry.
  10. Chien-Shiung Wu: Along with Chen Ning Yang, this fantastic physicist played with parity in subatomic particles and earned a Nobel Prize for her theories — many of which form the foundation of today’s scientific studies. Among Chien-Shiung Wu’s litany of staggering accomplishments — publishing Beta Decay (a text still placed on physics syllabi) in 1965; working on the Manhattan Project; being the first female to teach physics at Princeton, from which she also earned an honorary doctorate; winning the first Wolf Prize; serving as the first female president of the American Physical Society and plenty more. She also developed a more accurate Geiger counter and the gaseous diffusion process separating uranium into U-235 and U-238.
  11. Ada Lovelace: Many refer to this inspiring countess, the daughter of renowned poet Lord Byron, as “the world’s first computer programmer” — and for good reason. Along with Charles Babbage, for whom she translated engineer and future Prime Minister of Italy Luigi Menabrea’s lecture notes, Ada Lovelace developed the Analytic Engine and revolutionized computer engineering forever. The first program written for the modern computer’s forerunner consisted of an algorithm calculating Bernoulli numbers.
  12. Florence Nightingale: Legendary nurse Florence Nightingale first made a name for herself during the Crimean War, where she and her iconic lantern braved the battlefield to administer aid to the injured, ill and dying soldiers. Most know her as the founder of the nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London, the Nightingale School for Nurses and other organizations dedicated to educating future healthcare professionals. Beyond this, she possessed a particular knack for mathematics — even creating her own style of pie chart — and dedicated considerable time, effort and resources to sanitation reform worldwide.
  13. Mary Fairfax Somerville: Following in the footsteps of Caroline Herschel, the United Kingdom’s second widely recognized scientist obtained renown for her prodigious astronomy and mathematical prowess. Both women became the first female inductees into the Royal Astronomical Society, with Mary Fairfax Somerville recognized for her accessible translations of Pierre Simon Laplace’s scientific writings, as well as those put out by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. But she was no stranger to publishing herself, with an incredibly impressive body of work about a number of different cosmic phenomena.
  14. Clara Barton: Clara Barton is globally lauded as the founder of the American Red Cross, but her legacy extends far beyond the humanitarian organization. In her lifetime, the passionate nurse started out providing healthcare services during the American Civil War and heading up an initiative to find missing Union soldiers — appointed by no one less than Abraham Lincoln himself. Barton spent considerable time campaigning for improved medical attention both on and off the battlefield, traveling the globe to visit hospitals, orphanages and natural disaster sites as a means of establishing the best possible paths towards healing.
  15. Maria Mitchell: “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” was discovered in 1847, earning the eponymous astronomer who saw it through her telescope a gold medal from Denmark’s King Frederick VII. Massachusetts native Maria Mitchell also paved the way for women in the sciences when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Association for the Advancement of Science both inducted her as their first female member. For a time, she served as the first professor ever appointed to Vassar College and even directed its observatory.
  16. Florence R. Sabin: Johns Hopkins School of Medicine made history when it appointed this extraordinary woman to its full-time faculty — the very first to hold such a prestigious position. The Colorado native also smashed glass ceilings as the first female elected to the National Academy of Sciences, to serve as president of the American Association of Anatomists and to head up a department at the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Research. Her appointment to head up a public health initiative (bestowed upon her by Colorado’s then-governor John Vivian in 1944) resulted in improved medical care and coverage in the state.
  17. Elizabeth Arden: Today, Elizabeth Arden’s name is synonymous with the cosmetic and beauty industry rather than the sciences, but one should not discount her cultural contributions because of this. Though not formally trained as a chemist, she painstakingly researched and collaborated with individuals who were (most notably A. Fabian Swanson) to launch her hugely successful makeup lines. Science students with an interest in the business potential of their studies might want to look at Arden for inspiration.
  18. Sarah Hackett Stevenson: One of Illinois‘ very first nurses paved the road for female physicians when she became the initial female member of the American Medical Association. Interestingly enough, especially for 1876, the organization welcomed Sarah Hackett Stevenson with little to no drama whatsoever. 4 years later, she and Lucy Flowers would establish the Illinois Training School for Nurses and provide opportunities for later generations hoping to practice the medical arts.
  19. Jane Addams: Jane Addams earned the 1931 Nobel Peace Prize for her extraordinary, influential and pioneering work in the social sciences. While her humanistic brand of social work spread across multiple demographics, she is best known for Twenty Years at Hull-House, which chronicled the titular institution’s laudable attempts to provide immigrants with everything they need to succeed in their new American homes. Such efforts directly led to a prestigious position in the American Sociological Society during its 1905 inception — an organization also responsible for publishing a few of her papers.
  20. Maria Agnesi: Considered one of the greatest female mathematicians of all time, brilliant Maria Agnesi is attributed with publishing the very first book on integral and differential calculus. She also released provocative, influential works about the Witch of Agnesi, Euler, finite quantities and infinitesimals. Pope Benedict XIV appointed her to a prestigious faculty position at University of Bologna in 1750, teaching physics, mathematics and natural history — making her the first woman to ever serve as a professor.
  21. Gertrude Belle Elion: Out of the impressive plethora of pharmaceuticals Gertrude Belle Elion either developed, refined or inspired, her crowning achievement came when her research was used to create AZT for HIV/AIDS patients. A consummate pharmacologist and biochemist, she earned the Nobel Prize in 1988 for her role in curing and/or alleviating leukemia, gout, herpes, UTIs, malaria and plenty more — including the world’s first immunosuppressant. Elion was also the first woman inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

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