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11 Famous Female Scientists Who Revolutionized Their Fields

The brainy revolutionaries driving change

Abbey Slattery
Contributor

Gerty Cori photo

Gerty Cori and Carl Cori, Image via Wikimedia Commons

Quick: name your favorite female scientist. If you aren’t involved in a scientific field, it’s probably hard to think of many names besides the big hitters like Marie Curie or Jane Goodall. In reality, there is a long list of women in science who have made amazing discoveries, revolutionized their fields, and achieved the seemingly impossible—but remain in relative obscurity.

From genetic pioneers to oceanic cartographers, here are 11 female scientists that you should add to your list of trailblazing women.

Read more: 9 Undervalued People Who Changed the World

1. Caroline Herschel

Born in Germany in 1750, Caroline Herschel was relegated to work as a house servant for her family. At age 22, Caroline’s brother William, a telescope maker, invited her to live with him and trained her in music and math, in addition to taking her on as an apprentice. Herschel developed a passion for the sky, eventually helping her brother develop the modern mathematical approach to astronomy, as well as discovering three nebulae and eight comets on her own. 

Herschel was the first woman to ever discover a comet, and some of her catalogues are still used to this day.

2. Mary Anning

Mary Anning, a.k.a. “the greatest fossilist the world ever knew,” is maybe one of the coolest people ever. She discovered fossils of the ichthyosaur species when she was just 12 years old—thanks in part to her family home’s convenient location near the cliffs at Lyme Regis—and in the following years, she went on to find numerous other valuable artifacts, including the first plesiosaur. Sadly, many of her discoveries went uncredited, and remain so today.

3. Maria Mitchell

Born in 1818 to Quaker parents, Maria Mitchell was not only the first woman in the United States to become a professional astronomer, but she was also the first American scientist to discover a comet. The comet was dubbed “Miss Mitchell’s Comet” and won her both a gold medal from King Frederick VI of Denmark and an appointment to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

Throughout her life, she was also a strong advocate for the anti-slavery and suffragette movements and led the formation of the American Association for the Advancement of Women.

4. Lise Meitner

When it comes to unrecognized achievements, Lise Meitner is at the top of the list. After earning her doctoral degree in 1906, she worked with fellow scientist Otto Hahn studying radioactivity and eventually discovering the chemical element protactinium. A few years later, Meitner discovered something known as the Auger effect, which was named after the man who observed it two years after Meitner did.

Hahn and Meitner continued working together, and Lise eventually published the first paper on nuclear fission. Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for this research, but Meitner went uncredited.

5. Barbara McClintock

Although Barbara McClintock is a Nobel Prize winner, you may not recognize her name. Throughout her work in genetics, she studied the genes and chromosomes of corn, discovering that genetic elements have the ability to “move” during breeding. McClintock went on to become the third woman elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the first woman president of president of the Genetics Society of America, and the first ever recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

6. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson

Not-so-fun fact: Women weren’t allowed to enter the medical profession in England until 1876. The main driving force that made that possible? Elizabeth Garrett Anderson. After being barred from an all-male nursing school, Anderson taught herself French in order to go to Paris for her medical degree. She was still refused by the British Medical Register, until she set up her own hospital, the New Hospital for Women at the St. Mary’s Dispensary.

After constant campaigning, an act was soon passed to allow women into the medical field, and Anderson was named Dean at the London School of Medicine for Women.

7. Maria Merian

A German naturalist and artist, Maria Merian spent her life studying, cataloging, and documenting flora and fauna from around the world. Her most famous work, Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, included a detailed drawing of butterfly metamorphosis, which is credited as a major advancement in the field of entomology. 

Read more: 22 Women in Politics Who Fought to Make Better Workplaces for Women

8. Alice Ball

Alice Ball’s life was tragically short—she passed away at just 24 years old—but in her short time as a chemist, she was able to produce the most effective treatment for leprosy until the 1940s. At age 23, she developed a strategy for isolating the oil of the chaulmoogra tree in order to transform it into an injectable and absorbable liquid—a strategy now known as the Ball Method.  

9. Gerty Cori

The first American woman to ever receive a Nobel Prize in science, Gerty Cori and her husband Carl Cori developed the Cori Cycle, which explained the way the human body converts sugar to energy. Although both Cori’s contributed to the research, only Gerty’s husband received job offers, but Carl refused to work anywhere that wouldn’t take the both of them. Eventually, Carl was hired as the chair of the pharmacology department at Washington University School of Medicine, and Gerty was offered the much lower role of a research assistant. 

They worked in these positions for 16 years, until Carl rose through the ranks and had the power to promote Gerty to a full-time professor (that's an ally). The following year, the couple won the Nobel Prize for their research. 

10. Chien-Shiung Wu

After reading a biography of Marie Curie as a teenager, Chien-Shiung Wu was inspired to start her own scientific journey—one that would eventually lead her to similar scientific acclaim. Wu’s primary work was on the Manhattan Project and the Wu experiment, in which she played a vital role in developing a process to separate uranium metal into isotopes. Although Wu was one of the primary researchers, the Nobel Prize for this work instead went to her two male colleagues. 

11. Marie Tharp

A geologist and oceanographic cartographer, Marie Tharp’s passion took her to the bottom of the ocean—literally. For almost 20 years, Tharp worked on mapping out the mountains, ridges, and canyons of the ocean floor, which was previously thought to be simply a flat, muddy plain. The biggest discovery Tharp made was of the mid-ocean ridges, where magma from the earth’s core rises up to move the oceanic crust—the primary mechanism behind plate tectonics. 

Read more: 8 Female Artists That Weren’t in Your History Book, But Should Have Been

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